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July 28, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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Back to school: A new podcast trendlet is shows explaining public schools and public housing

Plus: What the Times paid for Serial, Spotify thinks that what podcasts need is more video, Headgum raises $2 million, transnational Asian podcasts, and more.

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 268, dated July 28, 2020.

Hey folks, Nick here. Caroline’s out for the week, and as a reminder, we’re taking next week off completely. Which means no Tuesday newsletter, and no Insider newsletters either. Serious, this time. I don’t care who gets acquired or who gets dragged to court or what. Need me some R&R, walk off the burnout. We’ll be back on August 11.

This week’s issue is going to be a bit of a throwback: a bunch of different stories, strung together by a thin line of commentary.

ICYMI: Serial Productions is now a New York Times company.

Also, the Times forged a “strategic alliance” with This American Life, in which the famed public radio and podcast operation will continue editorially collaborating with Serial Productions, while also receiving co-marketing and advertising sales support from the Times.

Aside from the general head-turning nature of the acquisition, this story is really about the Times. Here we have an already powerful audio publisher — one of the very few that’s broadly insulated from the vicissitudes of the podcast “platform wars” — further deepening its strength in the space. As Sam Dolnick, the Times’ assistant managing editor, told me, the overarching goal is to “establish the Times as a real center of gravity for audio journalism, news, and storytelling.”

One detail that didn’t get rolled into the initial write-up: the deal size. The Times is said to have paid $25 million for Serial Productions, according to the Times reporting on itself. (Ha.) Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin spun that yarn out a little further, reporting that the deal could ultimately be valued up to $50 million, based on performance.

In case it wasn’t already clear: 2020 is the year of podcast consolidation…in addition to, you know, being the year of the pandemic, economic calamity, social unrest, and what will almost certainly be the most volatile American presidential election in a lifetime.

(Then again, who knows what comes next?)

Public education. One last thing on the Serial Productions-NYT story: you might’ve heard that the first show to launch under the new arrangement is Chana Joffe-Walt’s Nice White Parents, a five-part series that features Joffe-Walt examining the role that white parents play in the shaping of public education. That drops on July 30.

But Nice White Parents won’t be the only podcast this season taking up the subject of public education. The latest season of Fiasco, Leon Neyfakh’s doc series distributed through Luminary, will focus on what happened when Black civil rights activists in Boston demanded their children be given access to the same level of education as their white counterparts in the 1960s and 70s. That launches on August 13.

There’s one more project to note: Nashville Public Radio’s The Promise is returning for its second season on August 31, and I’m told that this new set of stories will contain a two-parter on Nashville’s 43-year court battle following Brown v. Board.

Always interesting to see a cluster. Something’s in the air.

Headgum raises $2 million, primarily from Union Square Ventures. This is Headgum’s first investment raise ever, since its founding in 2015 by Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld.

The news strikes me as a response to the times. Broadly speaking, Headgum can be viewed as having been a fairly conventional podcast network for much of its existence, structured as a collection of network-owned programming bolstered by a series of third-party shows that it does not own but helps monetize and market.

It was only recently that Headgum began repositioning itself as an operation with discrete and differentiated lines of businesses. There is the core network component, but in November, the company launched a host read-focused podcast advertising marketplace solution called Gumball, and in January, it established “Headgum Studios,” which serves as a formal division for its owned-and-operated properties.

Gumball, of course, is perhaps the only truly venture capital-friendly component of the business, given its opportunity as a scalable advertising marketplace. As such, news of this investment shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Furthermore, Union Square Ventures, the storied VC firm that has invested in household names like Twitter and Stack Overflow, has already expressed strong interest in podcasting, having invested in Meet Cute, the “short-form romantic audio company” founded by USV alum Naomi Shah.

There’s some discussion in USV’s official blog post on the investment about the firm’s interest in vertically integrated media companies, which is worth noting. Here’s the pertinent part of the write-up:

This powerful three-part structure — owned content, distributed content network, ad marketplace — creates meaningful network effects. More unique content makes the platform more valuable to listeners, and user growth in turn boosts desirability for creators to join. This is true for most content networks. For Headgum, there is an added network effect between creators and brands. Better shows lead to cross-pollinated ad audiences which generate better ad opportunities within the network. We believe these effects, in tandem, are a formidable mechanism for building a trusted brand at scale.

One way we thought about Headgum’s unique model is as a vertically-integrated media company. Just as a vertically-integrated D2C brand owns IP, manufacturing, and distribution, Headgum unlocks creation, distribution, and monetization through its combined studio, network and marketplace. The benefits created by this full-stack approach for defensibility and scale got us excited about Headgum’s potential not only as a media company but as a venture-backable one.

It’s perhaps clearer to argue that the content side of businesses primarily functions as a top-of-the-funnel marketing opportunity for the Gumball marketplace, which can go on to participate in the current land-grab competition between various programmatically inclined hosting platforms like Art19 and Megaphone.

This week in Spotify. Let’s do a little bit of Kremlinology.

Last week, Spotify officially rolled out support for video podcasts, initially limiting the experience to a small number of shows. This comes after a period of testing around Zane and Heath: Unfiltered, a podcast fronted by two YouTube stars, originally announced in early May.

The initial batch of video-enabled podcasts include: The Ringer’s The Book of Basketball 2.0 and Higher Learning with Van Lathan and Rachel Lindsay, along with The Misfits Podcast, H3 Podcast, and The Rooster Teeth Podcast, among others. In other words, it’s a mix of Spotify-owned shows and podcasts that already have some sort of video presence established over YouTube. (One imagines that The Joe Rogan Experience, which commands considerable viewership over YouTube, is part of this conversation.)

I thought the way Spotify framed the rollout in the official blog post was somewhat noteworthy: “Spotify fans can better connect to creators with new video podcasts.” Centralizing the notion of “creators” in the value proposition strikes me as the tell here — this might be a quick-trigger experimental move, but the intent seems to be laying down the foundation for Spotify to swerve into the highly lucrative influencer lane. In addition to working with Zane and Heath: Unfiltered, the company has already moved to sign a few YouTube stars to exclusive podcasts, putting it in competition with efforts from operations like Studio71 and Cadence13.

This marks a semi-interesting loop back into history. Podcasting as we currently know it is overwhelmingly associated with audio, but there was a point in the earlier days of the technology when the distributional premise was evenly split between audio and video. This lane isn’t entirely new, and what we’re seeing here seems to be an attempt by Spotify to reorient and control it within a new context.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a big consumer of repackaged podcasts over YouTube, though I understand there are very many people who are. (That said, I am, admittedly, a massive YouTube consumer in general. You may or may not be surprised to learn that I’m mostly a travel and food vlog kinda guy. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.)

In any case, there’s an interesting friction point to think through: not everybody is good on video or audio, and an even smaller number of people are good at both, which means that this feature is likely only suitable for a small percentage of podcast makers on the platform. That probably doesn’t matter much for the platform over the long run, though: all it needs is a few major hits on the product, and the means to control the value extraction from those hits.

One more Spotify thingFrom The Wall Street Journal:

Money could soon be flowing from labels back into Spotify Technology SA’s coffers, thanks to a new deal struck with the world’s largest record company.

Spotify reached a new licensing agreement with Vivendi SA’s Universal Music Group that secures its massive catalog for streaming and signs the label giant onto Spotify’s “two-sided marketplace.”

Given that one of the bigger factors driving Spotify toward diversification (and into podcasting) is the nature of its relations with the big labels, it’s worth keeping an eye on how that pressure point is shifting.

Where credit is due. Last week, Amanda Seales — the actor, singer, and celebrity, whose credits include Issa Rae’s Insecure — officially launched a new network, called the Smart Funny & Black Podcast Network, that springboards out of her popular show Small Doses with Amanda Seales.

But the launch announcement came with a declaration that rubbed some the wrong way:

The SFB Podcast Network isn’t the first podcast network owned and operated by a Black woman, and the claim has since received pushback criticizing it as a form of erasure.

As Twila Dang, who founded Matriarch Digital Media — a podcast network and online community — in 2017, told me over email:

What’s frustrating and sad about this situation is Amanda has basically erased the hard work of Black women who came before her. We are part of a community that has had to fight for our voices to be heard in every aspect of the media (and society at large). To ignore us and pretend that she was the first Black woman to start a podcast network is an insult to a community that would have opened our arms to support her. We know how difficult creating a footprint in this industry can be. We help each other gain ground by sharing our knowledge and amplifying one another with our platforms. We show up for each other.

There has been a lot of discussion lately of the ways that marginalized communities are not included in the stories of our history. When we are erased, it makes it easier to exclude us, to deny our importance and to silence our voices. We remain an invisible “other” that is less worthy of care and consideration. Podcasting has a history too. I am a proud part of it along with a lot of amazing, hard-working Black women. And honestly, it hurts more watching a fellow Black woman dismiss us and our contributions so easily.

Dang also posted a Twitter thread listing out the other podcast operations owned and operated by Black women.

I’ve reached out to the SFB Podcast Network for comment, but did not hear back in time for publication.

And for those curious: Small Doses with Amanda Seales comes out of a relationship between Seales and Starburns Audio, in which the latter works with Seales to produce and distribute the show. I’m told that Starburns Audio has no involvement with the SFB Podcast Network.

From Digiday: “Podcast creators mull raising their ad loads while preserving high listener engagement.”

This has been happening for a while, of course, though it’s interesting to see it formalized in a general trade pub. To phrase things with excessive drama, ad loads are the key variable in differentiating between the podcast experience and the radio experience.

Eh, I reckon we’ll see more than a few publishers crank up that dial soon enough. Check out the piece.

Oh, and by the way: I’m the guest on the Digiday Podcast this week.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is losing its managing editor of podcasts, Kellie Riordan. She’s been with the organization for 18 years and has headed up its podcast unit, ABC Audio Studios, for the past three.

No word yet on what’s next for Riordan, though she did note: “I’m looking forward to exploring some new opportunities in the global podcast space, which is fast expanding right now.”

Open publishing. I’ve been thinking a lot about this fascinating Politico piece, written by Shen Lu, that profiles a cohort of progressive Mandarin-language podcasts that have emerged recently.

Independently created and distributed over the open architecture for a transnational audience, these shows might be relatively small in the industrial scale of things — one example, In-Betweenness, was noted as having brought in about 17,000 downloads since launching on June 21 — but that’s beside the point: they were formed to open up a front of discourse that might not naturally exist within any conventional context.

From the Politico write-up:

A wave of independent Chinese-language media platforms, based mostly outside of China — podcasts like In-Betweenness, as well as blogs, newsletters and video series — has sprung up in recent years to cover America and the world for a Chinese-speaking audience. Most of the audience are educated millennials living in cities in China and abroad, and most of the platforms can be accessed anywhere in the world, including China. Even if some episodes are removed by government censors from podcast stores in China, people can still access it by subscribing to RSS feeds.

In a way, these podcasts embody the original ideological promise of the medium. More than serving as a space for new entrepreneurial opportunity (and the creation of new multimillionaires), podcasting was largely carved out to allow the facilitation of proper alternatives to mainstream media. This is perhaps most cleanly represented by Open Source, one of the earliest podcasts, which came out of a collaboration between former Times journalist Christopher Lydon and RSS technologist Dave Winer. (That show is still ongoing, currently distributed by Hub & Spoke). According to the origin story, Open Source started out of frustration with the way the news media handled the run-up to the Iraq War in the early 2000s as well as the corporatization of news more generally.

The political sensibility has been somewhat lost in the contemporary framings of podcasting’s open-publishing merits: the “anybody can publish” proposition tends to be mostly talked about in terms of creative and entrepreneurial opportunity, but it’s equally — if not more — about political and ideological opportunity. (And there are some corners of the podcast universe that view the very notion of monetizing podcasts as antithetical to their founding purpose in the first place.)

Anyway, this emerging cluster of podcasts reminds me of the cluster of transnationally Asian digital publications recently profiled by Tammy Kim over at the Columbia Journalism Review:

New Naratif, New Bloom, and Lausan focus on Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, respectively, but in ways that avoid the biases of foreign correspondents and policy wonks or the narrow concerns of in-country English-language newspapers. Their orientation is not so much postcolonial as anti-nationalist and internationalist, meaning that they’re keener to explore what’s shared between working people in say, Taipei and Los Angeles, or Bangkok and Davao City, than to ask whether Canada or Vietnam has the more capable government — a temptation of traditional journalism.

As mentioned in the piece, these publications tend to not be all that financially viable, but again, that’s somewhat besides the point. Instead, the value of those publications is to build a structure that gives these ideas and ideologies a discrete home, that gives them for potential visibility, and that helps the formation of these identities with the accelerative support of the internet.

(Kim, by the way, also co-hosts a relatively new podcast called Time To Say Goodbye, which similarly offers transnationally Asian discussions on Asia, Asian-Americans, the coronavirus pandemic, and more recently, the protest movements that are grounded in the experiences of the three hosts, all of whom reside in America. I’m an avid listener.)

I don’t really think I have a particularly novel or thought-out point to make about this thread, other than to feel strongly (albeit amorphously) about the whole thing, speaking as a transnational Asian myself. (Despite passing as having assimilated well, I remain a foreigner in America.)

But I suppose I can say that the promise held by these Mandarin podcasts should be considered pertinent to any ongoing discourse about where the RSS feed goes from here — whether open podcasting will “die” or “wither away,” whether it will be superseded by closed profit-seeking platforms controlled by companies that can be pressured by certain governments, and what we gain and lose in any of those futures.

On a somewhat related note… Not podcast-specific but podcast-related, but there’s a curious Substack-within-a-Substack effort called “Discontents,” which seeks to establish an on-platform collective organized around “writers and podcasters on the left.” In other words, it’s an effort to create a bundle around atomized independent publishing efforts of shared beliefs, which may or may not be a natural counter-balancing outcome of this trend that sees all these writers branching out on their own.

Not that anybody asked, but I don’t think the whole “everybody’s going to be their independent writer/publisher/media operation and that’s the future of news and media and journalism” discourse is very smart, or sufficiently nuanced, or all that honest, frankly. This life ain’t for everybody, and there are distinct limitations to an environment of extreme individualism, which is probably why we’re going to see a lot more of this kinda thing — i.e. a recreation of the bundle, in some form or another — moving forward.

Rando question: Has anybody settled on a Goodreads for pods that they like?

Show notes.

  • I’ve been checking out a few episodes of The Believer Magazine’s Constellation Prize, hosted by Bianca Giaever, and it scratches a zine-esque itch, if you’re in the mood for that kind of thing. Fun fact: The Believer used to be published by McSweeney’s, which also produces the similarly zine-esque KCRW podcast The Organist. The magazine moved over to the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2017.
  • Marketplace has launched a new podcast for kids, Million Bazillion, meant to tackle questions from kids about money. (Listen, whenever I have a kid, that child will know about home loans long before they hit middle school.) The project comes out of a collaboration with Brains On!, whose co-creator, Molly Bloom, was a guest on a recent episode of Servant of Pod.
  • You know what? It’s pretty cool to read a theater critic writing about a radio play that’s also distributed as a podcast. In this case, that play is Richard II, as produced by WNYC.
  • Photo of a Boston public school hallway in 1973 by City of Boston used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 28, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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