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Aug. 11, 2020, 9:06 a.m.
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How do you run a fun membership drive in sad pandemic times? Maximum Fun has some ideas

Plus: What Spotify wants premium advertising to sound like, claims of systemic racism at PRX, BBC pushes for podcast audiences in Africa, and can Serial stay special?

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 269, dated August 11, 2020.

Bezos is always there. Seems like some folks have been getting this email lately:

Keep this between you and me, though. It’s confidential, they said.

Since we last left you… Podcast-land saw the release of two extremely high-profile projects: The Michelle Obama Podcast and Nice White Parents. July turned out to be really busy this year, which wasn’t really the case last summer. Then again, we didn’t have a pandemic this time last year. Oh boy.

A few brief notes on those two launches. The Michelle Obama Podcast is the first show from that buzzy exclusive partnership between Spotify and the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, which was originally announced over a year ago.

I have a writeup of the show for Vulture in the pipeline, but for now, one thing I’m thinking about is the ad experience. Michelle Obama doesn’t do host-reads, obviously, and the show has turned to glossy pre-produced spots to promote major brand clients like Tide. To my ears, those spots sound a lot more like traditional radio ads than anything else, contrasting even the ads that Spotify had been running through its original stuff under the Spotify Studios banner. (You know, the ones with the Breakmaster Cylinder-style chip beat laid under them, historically found on Startup and Reply All.)

This process of Spotify tweaking and adjusting the ad experience is worth watching closely. The company is all but certain to lean heavily on advertising to efficiently monetize podcasts on its platform at scale. (See: Streaming Ad Insertion.) What we hear on The Michelle Obama Podcast is likely a representation how the platform’s team wants premium ads to feel. The podcast is, after all, Spotify’s most ~premium~ show at the moment.

How will Spotify’s machinations on this advertising front ultimately reshape podcast advertising executions and expectations? The host-read ad has long been the unit of choice for podcast advertising, and while there are some efforts to retain that positioning and reorient it for scale (see: Gumball), we’ll likely see other arguments about what the future of podcast advertising supposed to look like. Ad aesthetics will change within a Spotify-dominant context, as they’re adapted to accommodate the pressures of scale and bigger brand needs. The question is how.

On a separate but related note, I have to say: my brain is dealing with some real Uncanny Valley stuff when it comes to advertising and The Michelle Obama Podcast. For one I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around hearing Michelle Obama talking about community and protests and then hard-cutting to a commercial for a laundry detergent. The very notion of a former president and a former First Lady engaging with the commerce of advertising, regarded in certain media circles as an impure necessary evil, is certainly very 2020.

That’s just the standard surreality of modern capitalism, I suppose.

Moving on, a few thoughts on Nice White Parents. There was a very short gap between the announcement that Serial Productions was being acquired by The New York Times and the show’s release. Though I see the utility of narrative momentum, it’s still something to basically go from zero to sixty with Serial Productions, which last dropped a new project in the fall of 2018 — in the form of Serial’s third season, which seems to share a lot structurally with Nice White Parents, at least in terms of the institutional analysis angle — and then basically kept mum for the next two years.

Remember: A big part of the story about the Times’ acquisition of Serial Productions is the notion that the new arrangement will lead to the creation of many more “Serials.” Furthermore, I think there are designs for more Serial Productions projects to follow rapidly in the wake of Nice White Parents, which only runs for five episodes.

The prospect of “more-ness” is interesting to me. Serial Productions, the house of the original podcasting phenomenon, has in large part come to be defined over the years for its scarcity. A new season of Serial, along with the launch of a sister project like S-Town, were events, greatly anticipated by podcast listeners and industry denizens alike. They make good news hooks, sublime ways of focusing and ballooning attention.

This is probably concern-trolling — in a manner not unlike that of sports reporters, so eager for narratives — but I’m curious whether Serial Productions will be able to scale up releases while retaining a core capacity to “eventize,” which has been a real point of differentiation for the operation. By way of contrast, I can’t really tell you about any new noteworthy projects from…certain high-volume podcast publishers…off the top of my head, largely because there are so many of them being pumped out at any given point in time. Then again, you could make the counter-argument that the trade-off is between “eventization” and “habit-forming,” the former being a gain that’s potentially more lucrative, but…eh, that’s less fun.

One last stray thought about Nice White Parents. It’s one thing to enjoy the bump from a drop in This American Life’s feed. It’s a whole other thing to get that bump and front page promotion on The New York Times website and top-billing placement on the Apple Podcast editorial page. Rarified air, folks.

Departing employee draws attention to systemic racism at PRX. Last week, Palace Shaw, an outgoing employee at PRX, circulated a letter that laid out details and reasons behind her departure. The letter depicts PRX as a workplace where it was structurally and culturally hard for her, a Black woman, to feel as if she had a future there. So Shaw decided to leave, even during a pandemic and economic crisis.

The existence of Shaw’s letter and aspects of its content were initially made publicly prominent in a thread published last Friday by an anonymous Twitter account called freepublicradio.

With Shaw’s consent, I’m linking the full letter here.

The letter includes discussion of a disparity in pay and professional opportunity (Shaw writes of being paid less than other workers of similar roles and responsibilities, despite her many contributions); a culture that’s been specifically toxic for Black employees (Shaw says PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman touched her hair without consent; she asserts that “each characteristic on the list of White Supremacy Culture Characteristics is fully expressed in the workplace”); and a resultant pattern in which at least four Black women have left the organization over the past year. (Shaw is the fourth.)

Shaw sent me a statement:

What can’t be lost in any of this, is that I chose to be unemployed during a pandemic and economic crisis over continuing at PRX. That was an incredibly difficult decision to make. Since sending the letter, [PRX CEO] Kerri Hoffman has not taken personal accountability for violating me or reached out to me at all. Under Kerri Hoffman, a culture that erodes the well-being of Black women thrives. My letter is as much about her lack of leadership as it is about my mistreatment and the systemic mistreatment that exists at PRX.

The internal response from leadership has been disheartening, and I have only seen buzzwords used repeatedly as a result. “Taking things seriously” without responding to staff members’ concerns, “taking accountability” without apologizing or acknowledging the events in my letter as true despite the documentation. Without an apology, I cannot conclude that they are sorry for my experience, or the experiences of those who left before me. This letter is the tip of an iceberg of the ways in which PRX and its associated orgs (PRI’s The World) have behaved. This long standing issue has become clear through others coming forward to share their experiences.

My hope is that going forward the work that PRX does for “openness” and “diversity will be held under more scrutiny.

On Monday, CEO Hoffman published a Medium post containing a message that was circulated among staffers earlier in the day, responding to what’s been going on. “I hear you,” Hoffman wrote. “I apologize and take full responsibility. I am sorry my leadership has not matched your expectations of me. I pledge to do better.” She went on to lay out steps that the organization had taken toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion leading up to this point, along with more recent steps to address concerns raised in Shaw’s letter, including hiring a third-party investigator to look into some issues. The question of whether those steps are adequate can — and should — be vigorously debated.

This episode comes during what has already been a fraught few weeks for public media around the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Last Friday, Marissanne Lewis-Thompson, a newscaster and reporter with St. Louis Public Radio, published an open letter that criticized the station for facilitating a culture of systemic racism, singling out specific individuals in managerial positions.

Though somewhat different in scale and severity, last Friday also saw the resignation of WAMU general manager J.J. Yore, which comes as a culmination of several months’ worth of internal turmoil and advocacy against the station’s newsroom culture. A tremendous amount has happened within the context of this specific story, and I recommend checking out the write-ups from DCist and The Washington Post.

All these stories, of course, play out within the shadow of what feels like the ur-Story of this narrative thread: the revelations of New York Public Radio’s toxic workplace culture, which first exploded at the end of 2017, and whose battles continue to persist to this day.

The New York Times assembles its Opinion Audio unit. Back to the Times for a hot second. Earlier this month, the news organization announced the eight hires who will help expand the Opinion section’s work around audio.

As a reminder, there’s already one Times Opinion podcast that’s been operating for a while: The Argument, which had originally been produced by an external partner, Transmitter Media. This staffing-up presumably sets the scene for further expansion in Times Opinion audio products. We already know of one such future project: the upcoming Kara Swisher podcast, a production whose creation resulted in her stepping away from hosting Vox Media’s long-running Recode Decode podcast. (She continues to co-host Pivot, a podcast now housed under Vox Media’s New York Magazine banner.)

Two things stand out to me about this news bite. First, the move to build out a dedicated audio team for the Opinion section, separate from the larger NYT Audio team, seems like a replication of the Newsroom-Opinion firewall. It also means there are technically three distinct audio divisions operating within the Times: Audio, Opinion Audio, and Serial Productions.

Second, four out of the eight hires come from New York Public Radio. The team is being led by Paula Szuchman, formerly the VP of New Show Development at WNYC Studios, who was brought on by the Times in March.

The eight hires are: Adam Teicholz, Alison Bruzek, Christina Ayele Djossa, Heba Elorbany, Isaac Jones, Kathy Tu, Olivia Natt, and Vishakha Darbha.

Membership drives in the coronavirus era. “Anyone claiming to have solid expectations in this environment is playing someone for a fool,” said Bikram Chatterji, the managing director of Maximum Fun.

We were talking about the veteran podcast company’s annual membership drive, the MaxFunDrive, which wrapped up its latest campaign last week. Membership revenue is a crucial part of Maximum Fun’s business, but this drive has the distinction of taking place in the midst of a global pandemic, economic turmoil, and a breakthrough moment in the fight for racial justice.

“We wondered about doing a drive at all,” Chatterji told me. A good deal of that uncertainty was rooted in how the nature of Maximum Fun’s programming — its watchwords are “Comedy and Culture” — would come across in this particularly sensitive moment. In some ways, Maximum Fun’s shows are tailor-made for the needs of its community in this time, when most are socially isolated and deeply anxious over the state of the world. Still, the tone of such programming can clash with the gravity of what’s going on.

The reality, though, is that the drive had to go on. Maximum Fun is a small business, all things considered, and its hosts are predominantly independent creators who have seen their livelihoods diminished by production stoppages, lost touring revenue, and so on. Add to that the baseline volatility associated with advertising revenue, and you have a situation where moving forward with a MaxFunDrive was not a question of if, but how.

“We knew that the drive, when we had it, would be different,” said Chatterji. “For one thing, we wouldn’t do the all-out, blanket-promotion that normally characterizes the two weeks of MaxFunDrive. We didn’t think it would be appropriate to the times, and honestly, we’re not sure we could marshal the emotional resources for that effort ourselves.”

Key adjustments were made to the approach. First and foremost, the membership drive was extended from two weeks to four, allowing the pitch energy to be more relaxed and less frenetic. Membership purchases were also more flexible — one new offering allowed supporters to “boost” an existing membership between membership levels by adding just a few bucks a month  — and implemented options that engendered a larger feel of community support. For example, they added gift memberships, which gave more financially secure supporters the opportunity to help less financially secure friends access membership benefits. They also created an option to buy memberships for anonymous recipients, chosen from a pool of recent members who’d had to cancel due to the impacts of Covid-19.

The team also sharpened the MaxFunDrive’s community-orientation goals. Its fundamental pursuit remains the necessary work of growing revenue for the company’s show network and operations, but the campaign was further rooted in a spirit of serving as a focal point for Maximum Fun’s community. That attention was also driven toward select causes: over the course of the drive, the company organized weekly livestreams benefitting the Equal Justice Initiative, Meals on Wheels, Trans Lifeline, and Give Directly’s Covid-19 fund.

By many measures, the drive turned out to be a success. As of this past weekend, the campaign had driven 31,882 new, upgrading, and “boosting” memberships. It’s Maximum Fun’s highest tally ever, beating last year’s haul of 28,500. The charity livestreams raised over $10,000, and the company stands to raise more off a pin sale it’s currently running for members. Finally, Maximum Fun ran out of recipients for the anonymous-purchased gift memberships, and have begun recruiting for more possible recipients.

Maximum Fun does not disclose the total number of members currently providing direct revenue to the operation, only the number associated with the achievements of the specific drive. Chatterji was also reticent to discuss the drive’s performance relative to its expectations going into the campaign, hence the quote that kicked off this write-up. He’s even reluctant to think about this year’s campaign relative to previous ones. It’s an understandable impulse, given the anomaly of the situation and the structural changes made to the MaxFunDrive execution.

Nevertheless, there are somewhat universal learnings to pull from this experience. Chatterji highlighted tone management as the biggest concern going into the campaign, given the fact that asking for money is hard even under ideal conditions. “I think the reason our staff and hosts were able to thread that needle is the reason that MaxFun as a whole works: because of the way we create a sense of community and shared purpose between and amongst our shows and our audience, based on mutual respect and support,” he said. “There are things that you can’t fake.”

He went on to situate the power of that sense of community within the current context. “We are all struggling to deal with systems and structures that seem huge, anonymous, and unresponsive to individual or community-based needs and actions,” he said. “The flight to scale in media is clearly not the most important example of this, but it’s the thing I think about a lot professionally. The drive feels like an antidote to that. Every one of the 30,000-plus people who chose to increase their support for MaxFun shows represents an individual making a choice that has a direct impact on a thing that they love. I’m just very grateful for that.”

The Cut returns to audio, no longer on Tuesdays. More than six months after the end of its collaboration with Gimlet Media, called The Cut on Tuesdays, New York Magazine has officially announced that it’s bringing The Cut back to audio — and that it’s tapped Avery Trufelman, formerly of 99% Invisible, to host the new version of the show.

Now simply called The Cut, the podcast will debut on August 19, with new episodes dropping every Wednesday. This comes as the magazine appears to be laying down the foundation for a more concerted podcast push. It hired Hanna Rosin, formerly of NPR’s Invisibilia, as editorial director for audio last month.

Obligatory disclaimer: I’m a contributing writer for Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment vertical, but I’ll be covering what that organization is doing in much the same way I’ll cover any other organization. Perks of being an insider-outsider, I guess.

The BBC’s push for podcast audiences in Africa [by Caroline Crampton]. The BBC World Service has recently launched the first of a series of new podcasts aimed at younger audiences in Africa, as part of a bigger push towards attracting more listeners on the continent.

The show, The Comb, is a weekly deep dive into one story from somewhere in the region — standout episodes for me so far include this one about disputes over sand as a strategic resource in The Gambia and this one about two sisters, one raised in Germany and one in Ghana. It’s hosted by Kim Chakanetsa (who already fronts The Conversation for the World Service) and is made by the BBC Africa team that works on the Focus on Africa radio show.

The BBC World Service, launched in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service, operates now as the BBC’s international broadcasting arm. It’s funded partly by revenue from commercial BBC properties and advertising, as well as via government funding. In 2015, £289 million in additional funding was announced, which was put toward expanding into 12 new languages and the aim of increasing the audience to 500 million people by the time of the BBC’s centenary in 2022. The World Service has long been seen as a source of “soft power” for the U.K. abroad, hence the direct funding from the government.

The push to reach more people in Africa isn’t just limited to podcasts. There are TV and digital projects too, and in 2018, the BBC opened its largest bureau outside the U.K. in Nairobi, Kenya. “It’s all about reaching new young audiences, and those audiences which are not served as well as they could be either by the BBC or by local media,” Jon Manel, podcast commissioning editor for the BBC World Service, told me. In particular, that means young people and women.

It’s the core mission of the service’s podcasts, he added, “to reach new and underserved audiences around the world,” and that means spreading awareness of podcasting itself as well as making and releasing shows. “One of the biggest challenges we’ve got is not only making great podcasts, but spreading the word about the podcast. Often it involves trying to create podcasts in countries where the awareness of podcasting is still relatively low.”

Audience research showed that World Service radio listeners in Africa wanted more in-depth audio stories rather than brief updates, Chakanetsa said. “Sometimes I think when you’re in the newsroom, you’re covering a story over and over again and you tend to forget that someone might be coming to it for the first time,” she said. “That’s why it’s a weekly podcast, because that will give us time to get the voices that we want, because the voices were absolutely key to us.”

Episodes of The Comb are all around 20 minutes long — any longer could make the files too expensive to download in places where data charges are high — and often feature BBC Africa reporters bringing in stories or chasing down listener tips. “What’s really nice about The Comb is sometimes the stories that are coming to us don’t naturally fit into a radio program,” Chakanetsa said. Focus on Africa is a daily radio show, and plenty of stories that don’t work for that can now find a home on the podcast.

Making podcasts that will appeal to young people in lots of countries simultaneously is a big challenge, and Chakanetsa and the team behind The Comb are very aware that stories hit differently in different places. The BBC, too, has a different reputation across the generations. “Growing up in Zimbabwe, the BBC was the backdrop,” she said.

“My father listened to the BBC all the time. It was very much a voice of authority, someone you could trust. And that does continue, but there’s a slight disjuncture where the younger generation, you know, might dive into some of our digital stuff, but a lot of people may think ‘this might not be for me’ or ‘it seems like it might be for older people.'” Around 75 percent of Africa’s population is under the age of 35, and you can’t just assume their loyalty to the broadcaster, Chakanetsa said. “They’re not going to just stick with the same people forever. You have to make it appealing to them and you have to keep on trying.”

The Comb will publish weekly for 18 weeks and then take a short break before returning for another 18 episodes. The intention is that it should feel like a continuously publishing show so that the audience can build the habit of tuning in every week. Also in the pipeline is a daily news podcast that will complement The Comb’s weekly deep dives with more evolving updates, and a reported series from the BBC Africa investigative unit Africa Eye. Pending delays caused by Covid-19 outbreaks, both of those are planned for late 2020 or early 2021.

For other World Service podcasts, like 30 Minutes to the Moon and Death in Ice Valley, the aim has been to maximize global reach, so finding an audience in places like the U.S. and India has been really important, Manel said. However, with The Comb and the podcasts that follow, the ambition is all about staying targeted and reaching those young listeners in Africa — attracting listeners anywhere else is just a bonus, really.

On Servant of Pod. Because we took last week off, I wasn’t able to properly plug the most recent episode of the episode, so excuse me as I take a few hundred words to that effect.

Veteran Hot Pod readers probably already know this, but one thing I’ve long been interested in is the development and evolution of specific job functions within podcasting as the community continues to grow in size and complexity. In particular, I’ve been very interested in the role of podcast editor, which can be a hard job to talk about. It’s somewhat similar to the difficulties of defining the “producer” — podcasting and on-demand audio’s core labor unit — in the sense that the job can be rather fluid, encompassing a great many different things depending on the institutional context.

But my own understanding of podcast editors tends to be grounded in their emphasis on structure and perspective. The job, in my mind, is primarily linked to asking the question of how stories are being presented, and how they exist within the mind of many audiences.

So, for last Wednesday’s episode, I spoke with the great Catherine Saint Louis, a veteran of The New York Times who’s now a senior editor at Neon Hum Media. The conversation sprawled a little bit, touching on the actual experience of carrying out the role responsibilities, how she was drawn to the job, and the question of the editor pipelines. One line that has struck with me: “We can’t keep wanting different podcasts and not recognize that we need more Black editors.”

Alright, let’s look forward. For tomorrow’s episode, we’re doing something a little different. In a span of about thirty minutes, we’re going to provide an extremely brief look at the world of audio erotica and audio pornography. This isn’t a podcast-specific story, though it does engage with issues and dynamics that have long been central to our interests: among other things, you’ll hear about a big platform, an upstart startup, and an independent creator, all of which are situated within a web that connects each other.

I had a lot of fun working on this episode, though I did not quite expect to, as I am, by internal nature, a prude.

You can find Servant of Pod on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or the great assortment of third-party podcast apps that are hooked up to the open publishing ecosystem. Desktop listening is also recommended. Share, leave a review, and so on.

POSTED     Aug. 11, 2020, 9:06 a.m.
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