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Aug. 18, 2020, 10:52 a.m.
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Vice is bringing in a big audio team to do new kinds of podcasts — from a daily news show to a seasonal series

Plus: The BBC’s problems with race continue, Freakonomics Radio expands, Spotify is hiring for a head of audiobooks, and what it’s like to make a sports podcast right now.

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 270, dated August 18, 2020.

Hmm… Spotify appears to be hiring for a head of audiobooks, based either in New York or Los Angeles.

Not to be a tool about it, but called it. From my June 2019 column, “Audiobooks are not exempt“:

if I were a betting man, I’d sprinkle some action on the notion that there will come a time, not too far into the future, when Spotify might begin looking into the possibility of securing audiobook distribution rights here in the United States. After all, the audiobook category falls directly into Spotify’s underlying interests in becoming a ubiquitous, all-consuming audio platform, which would involve expanding into other on-demand audio markets — audiobooks included.

Do I get a cookie for this, or something?

What’s going on at Vice Audio? Seriously, though.

The Williamsburgian media company — long known for a brand-artistic mix of provocative programming and fascinating documentary-style reporting — turned a few heads last week when it announced that not only had it hired Arielle Duhaime-Ross, most recently of Vox Media’s Reset, to host an upcoming flagship Vice News Reports podcast, but that it had also assembled a small army to staff up its audio division. According to Deadline, the company made a dozen audio hires and promotions beyond Duhaime-Ross.

This heavy staffing push is curious, because up until this point, Vice has appeared to be relatively tentative with its audio efforts. The company trended toward conversational programming until mid-2018 — which, to be fair, was basically what most other digital media companies were doing with podcasts for much of that time period — and then turned to a more piecemeal approach, building documentary projects that are somewhat closer to its video work and staffing up on a project-by-project basis.

After mid-2018, Vice didn’t abandon conversational podcasts entirely — it continued to publish shows like Waypoint and Cyber that reflect off its various digital publishing verticals — but it did start exhibiting some meaningful interest in narrative audio documentary. There was, of course, “Chapo: Kingpin on Trial,” the 2018 serialized podcast that told the story of the U.S.-Mexican drug war as the titular cartel leader went on trial. That project came out of a partnership with Spotify, to which Vice would sell a few more audio shows for exclusive distribution a year later, including “Uncommitted: Iowa 2020” and “Painkiller: America’s Fentanyl Crisis.”

Today, Vice appears to have greatly expanded its intent with the medium, as exhibited by its newly expanded audio division. Also, if you dig a little deeper into the hires, you unearth what feels like a distinctly 2020 perspective on the hiring strategy and recruitment pipelines involved in building out an audio team for a big media company.

The team’s executive producer is Annie Avilés, a former NPR foreign correspondent who has been with Vice since the summer of 2018. Avilés was elevated into the role, most recently serving as the global senior producer at the company. Janet Lee, who occupies the role of senior production manager, was mostly recently at Patreon, where she led creative partnerships with podcasters, though she also had a stint at TED, where she oversaw the launch of new projects, including podcasts.

There are two hires from The New York Times’ Daily team: senior producer Adizah Eghan and producer Sayre Quevedo. There’s one hire from Stitcher, Stephanie Kariuki, who worked her way up that organization from production assistant to senior producer over the course of four years, and now joins Vice as a senior producer. There’s a long-time freelance journalist and producer, Ashley Cleek, who also joins as a senior producer. There are two associate producer hires: Adreanna Rodriguez, who joins from KALW, and Sam Eagen, who works on Mobituaries with Mo Rocca. Producer Julia Nutter joins from The Skimm, but has television experience, having worked on The Rachel Maddow Show for several years. There are three dedicated sound design hires: Steve Bone, Pran Bandi, and Kyle Murdock.

And then there’s Arielle Duhaime-Ross, whose hiring marks a homecoming of sorts. Prior to joining Vox Media to host Reset, she was an environment and climate correspondent on the Vice News Tonight television show. Before that, she was a science reporter at The Verge, so I guess this is kind of a homecoming after another homecoming. Anyway, her departure from Vox Media means that Reset, which originated as an expansion of what Axios regarded as a “multi-million dollar deal” between Vox Media and Stitcher, is coming to an end. But her recruitment by Vice to host its new flagship podcast — which, by the way, comes out of a partnership with iHeartMedia, not Spotify — should be a source of excitement for those who are interested in seeing a further expansion of news podcast products more generally. (Another thing to note: Vice also hired Duhaime-Ross to be an on-air correspondent for its television program, so this shouldn’t just be read as an audio-for-audio talent move.)

But what exactly should we expect from Vice’s beefed up audio team?

Kate Osborn is the person with the answers. We’ve featured Osborn in Hot Pod before, through a Career Spotlight segment that ran back in December, and she’s probably one of the more interesting people you’d meet in this business. A documentarian at heart, her work has spanned a wide number of roles, companies, and media, including stints at The Rachel Maddow Show, WBUR, and HuffPost. She joined Vice Media over a year ago to work on its revamped audio efforts, and today, she holds the title of VP of Audio.

Osborn tells me that the decision to staff up in this manner came out of an intent to expand sustainably. Coming off of the successes of its previous podcast projects, Vice had wanted to do more audio, but it also began to sense that it needed more flexibility in the way it conceptualized and executed on show ideas. “Something that came up a ton was the fact that there were so many great stories we wanted to pursue, but not all of them are meant to be full eight-to-twelve episode seasons,” said Osborn. A flagship platform like the Vice News Reports podcast could be a home to those different show variations, but staffing up on a project-by-project basis, then, wasn’t a feasible way to solve that particular problem, so the decision was made to bring in a sizable team that could be reconfigured in a bunch of different ways to accommodate different kinds of projects.

There were also benefits to hiring all at once, instead of gradually scaling up. “I wanted to bring in a cohort, because I think that’s the best way to have a really intentional work environment for collaboration,” said Osborn. She also purposefully sought to assemble a team with mixed experience levels, hence the layering of people with significant news experiences and people without, long-time freelancers and folks in their first years on the job, and so on. The pandemic made the hiring process a little difficult, as you would expect, but in the end, Osborn felt like she built the team she wanted. “I don’t know how other people feel when they do hiring, but every single person [we’ve hired] is such an incredible force,” she said. “All of these people combined are 10 million times better than me, and that’s really exciting. I don’t want to disappoint them.”

One core value driving Osborn, along with the Vice audio division, is a desire to tell truly “borderless” stories, and many of the podcasts being developed at the moment reflect that sensibility. Beyond Vice News Reports, the division has plans to launch three other podcasts that will originate from the team based here in the U.S. One will be a seasonal show centered on the global climate crisis, which will see the team trying to connect the dots across the experiences of several different countries. Another will adopt an anthological format to tell stories that explore authoritarianism as a philosophical, sociological, and psychological concept, refracting its various facets through different stories that stem from different places. The third show will be an experimental project, as Osborn puts it, with the goal of telling recent or unfolding events primarily through user-generated content.

Projects are also being developed by teams based in other countries. When we spoke, Osborn briefly talked about a podcast that she’s been building with a team in Japan, which will be meant for the “Japanese-understanding” market. That’s how she phrased that effort, and it’s an effective way to illustrate how she thinks about the possibilities of making audio shows on a global level. She sees audiences not as geographically defined, but linguistically defined.

“I encourage us to very much think of things in terms of an ‘English-speaking’ or ‘Japanese-understanding’ audience, because we’re talking about listeners that share language understanding regardless of geographic location,” she said. “In some ways, when we think about the ‘U.S. market’ or the ‘U.K. market,’ it can be pretty arbitrary, and though, yes, there is increasing geofencing practices and things like that, but for the most part, we should understand them to be global audiences.”

Osborn also talked about her broader intent to build longer-term relationships and infrastructure with producers in other countries — whether it’s Mexico, the Philippines, or Singapore — such that we’ll be able to see the creation of audio productions that can be truly run through the point of view of those producers. There remain tricky logistical problems to solve in this ambition, including, but not limited to, monetization. But she suspects that part of the solution would involve interfacing with a given country’s specific audio distribution and monetization system, which is a reflection both of the fact that podcasting isn’t the same everywhere (despite its open nature) and that podcasting is just one type of audio.

That’s the bigger, longer-term picture. For now, here in the States, Vice Media has a new audio team, an upcoming flagship podcast, and fresh intentions. It will be interesting to see what it will bring to the table, and how many new ideas it can inject into the news and documentary podcast genre.

Follow-up to PRX. Quick update on last week’s story on a departing PRX staffer, Palace Shaw, drawing attention to systemic racism at the organization: Two other employees, Eric Dhan and Se’era Spragley Ricks, have written an open letter pushing back against CEO Kerri Hoffman’s internal memo on the matter that was publicly circulated over Medium last week.

They wrote:

The letter from our CEO does not reflect the views of all staff members at PRX. It is not easy to openly disagree with the head of our company, and we write this message with no intention to “burn the house down.” We are dedicated to the values and mission at PRX; we believe in openness, trust, and empathy, and we strive to increase the diversity of voices in public media. We are committed stakeholders who care deeply about the wellbeing of our organization, and we want to do our part to hold our leadership accountable and ensure that PRX can live up to the values that drew us to work here in the first place.

The letter, which also listed named support from 10 other PRX employees and affiliated individuals, also laid out a series of specific next steps that they believe should be taken to ensure necessary changes to the organizations. Those steps include a direct apology to Shaw, the determination and distribution of back pay to employees who have left the organization in part due to structural pay disparities, and increased transparency mechanisms in the recruitment and hiring process for the new director of diversity and inclusion.

You can find the full letter, which was published as a Google Doc, here.

Race, diversity, and the BBC [by Caroline Crampton]. Like many big legacy broadcasters — and many other types of big organizations — the BBC is currently grappling with its legacy and responsibilities on race. The global protests over racial injustice, catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, have intensified these discussions, certainly, but within the context of the BBC, there have been long-standing efforts, far predating this moment, by campaigners like Lenny Henry, Marcus Ryder, and many others to improve the BBC’s internal culture.

Writers like Afua Hirsch have been highlighting the racial inequality in compensation for journalists and presenters at the BBC for years, freelance and staff producers have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to highlight racism and inequality, and parliamentary committees have also tried repeatedly to hold the corporation to account on everything from inadequate grievance processes to slow progress on promoting more Black people and people of color to senior leadership.

The BBC has acknowledged the problem itself. Back in 2018, the BBC Career Progression and Culture Report admitted that “it’s taking too long to see the change that we expect within our workforce.” It also promised significant change. That report, incidentally, was authored by Tim Davie, then CEO of BBC Studios, who will take over as director general of the entire BBC in September. Yet, despite this admission, staff, contributors, and viewers still feel considerable frustration.

In the last month, two moments that really put the BBC’s problems with race in perspective for me. These aren’t the only events relevant to this topic, by any means, but I think these instances in particular highlight the gap between the corporation’s external statements and its internal actions, and show how much more work there is to be done.

The first moment came on July 22, when the BBC Radio and Music division made the welcome announcement that it was “boosting its commitments to diversity and inclusion” and reallocating £12 million of its existing commissioning budget over the next three years toward “diverse and existing content.” In addition, we were told that later this year would see the launch of something called the BBC Sounds Lab, a new and “more accessible” route to a BBC podcast commission, along with a new commitment to only working with independent production companies that “meet a 20% diversity target in their team.” This all came, I should note, in the wake of BBC Radio signing up to the Equality in Audio Pact pioneered by Broccoli Content’s Renay Richardson.

It was the last element of this that most caught my attention. The BBC has a substantial role to play in the U.K. audio industry as a major commissioner of programs and podcasts from independent production companies. If it does indeed only choose to work with companies that have diverse staffs, that would force a major change in hiring practices in the industry. At the moment, I can only think of a small handful of providers that would meet this requirement. However, when I asked for more detail about how this would be enforced — both back in July and again while writing this piece — I was told that the full details were still being worked out, so nothing has been enacted yet. The same goes for questions of intellectual property and ownership: it’s not yet clear whether there will be any change to the status quo that would allow creators to keep ownership of their own shows even if they are picked up by BBC Sounds.

The second moment I want to consider in relation to this concerns a story on the July 28 edition of “Points West,” the BBC regional news program, which was repeated on the national BBC news channel the following morning. In it, correspondent Fiona Lamdin, who is white, used the N-word when reporting on the abuse hurled during a racially aggravated hit and run attack on K-Dogg, a musician and NHS worker, in Bristol.

Despite the outcry from viewers, the BBC initially defended the decision to include the word in the report, saying in a statement, “We believe we gave adequate warnings that upsetting images and language would be used and we will continue to pursue this story.” It went on to say that the decision to repeat the slur had been made after consultation with the victim’s family, who wanted viewers to understand the severity of the attack.

On August 8, BBC Radio 1Xtra host Sideman (aka David Whitely) published an Instagram video in which he announced that he was resigning from all work for the corporation, including his weekly radio show, with immediate effect. “This is an error in judgment where I can’t just smile with you through the process and act like everything is OK,” he said. “The action and the defense of the action feels like a slap in the face of our community.”

The next day, BBC director general Tony Hall overturned the decision to defend the use of the slur and personally apologized for the report. “The BBC now accepts that we should have taken a different approach at the time of broadcast and we are very sorry for that. We will now be strengthening our guidance on offensive language across our output,” he said. “Every organization should be able to acknowledge when it has made a mistake. We made one here.”

The BBC reportedly received over 18,000 complaints from members of the public about the uncensored use of the slur. For many BBC staff, however, this incident didn’t happen in isolation, and is simply yet another example of how the organization culturally possesses an inadequate understanding of race and racism.

These two instances appear very different on the surface, but the more I’ve been thinking about them, the more they seem to me to be two reflections of the same thing. The attitude that led the BBC to announce a major change to how it will work with suppliers on radio and podcast commissioning without first nailing down its practicalities is the same impulse that requires there to be a major host resignation and 18,000 complaints about the use of a slur before an apology is issued. It’s reactive, not proactive, and regardless of intention it communicates that these matters are not given total priority. And while that is the case, I can’t see that this is the route to lasting institutional change.

Freakonomics Radio expands as a publisher. Freakonomics Radio, the audio program that explores the “hidden side of everything” based on the popular book franchise by the journalist Stephen Dubner and the economist Steven Levitt, launched as a WNYC program back in 2009 and quickly became something of an early archetypal podcast hit. You could perhaps detect some of its DNA in shows like Invisibilia and Hidden Brain, which privilege popular science and social science as fertile land from which stories can be harvested, and these days, you can even thread it out to some extent to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast work via “Revisionist History” and the expanding Pushkin Industries, which has been hammering down the author-to-podcaster pipeline.

As an entrepreneurial venture, Freakonomics Radio also has the distinction of being a prominent example of a public radio-originated program that eventually broke off to establish itself as an independent publisher. In 2018, the show left WNYC Studios to take up a partnership with Stitcher, though it continues to retain a partnership with WNYC for public radio syndication. That gambit — to break off and split distributional alliances — has inspired similar moves. Just last week, Hidden Brain, the NPR-originated audio program about the “unconscious patterns driving human behavior,” announced that it is following almost the exact same route: it’s spinning out as an independent company, Hidden Brain Media, with a Stitcher partnership in hand, a retained public radio syndication partnership with NPR, and designs for further cross-media expansion.

Later this week will see another step forward for Freakonomics Radio. This Friday, the show will launch a new spin-off called People I (Mostly) Admire, which the official press release regards as Steven Levitt’s solo podcast debut. (As a point of clarification, Stephen Dubner is designated as the sole host of Freakonomics Radio, with Levitt popping up as a recurring guest.) It should be noted that People I (Mostly) Admire is not the first Freakonomics Radio spin-off. That honor goes to No Stupid Questions, hosted by Dubner and the social scientist Angela Duckworth (you might know Duckworth as the author of Grit), which launched back in May.

But the upcoming launch of People I (Mostly) Admire will mark the establishment of a new podcast publishing shingle formed around Freakonomics Radio, which will be called (generically enough) the Freakonomics Radio Network. From the sounds of it, the entity appears to be a bid to go after a more specialized social scientist-to-podcast pipeline, which in my mind probably brings more competition to Pushkin Industries’ turf. There are plans to launch new programming through 2021, with at least one or two more pilot programs to show up in the fall. Ideas in development are said to include a book club and another show built around a “prominent sociologist.”

As a matter of process, I’m told that the network favors a soft-launch approach to piloting shows, dropping a test episode in the flagship Freakonomics Radio feed — which has come to drive millions of downloads — to get a sense of listener appetite. If the feedback is positive, those episode get spun out into full shows, as was the case with No Stupid Questions and the upcoming People I (Mostly) Admire. If not, at the very least listeners were treated to a fun experiment.

Interesting stuff. Seems like Stitcher is really profiting off these public radio branch-offs. Wonder if we’ll see more of this.

In other news…

  • The New York Times is officially relaunching the “Modern Love” podcast in the fall. The podcast will now be completely produced by the Times’s audio division — it was previously a co-production with WBUR, and was primarily made by the Boston public radio station — and its new iteration is said to feature a completely new sound.
  • RedCircle, a podcast monetization startup we’ve written about before, has launched an “automated ad insertion platform.” Sounds like a programmatic-ish ad exchange.
  • Spotify has partnered with C-SPAN to distribute the speeches from both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention over the platform. Also, Daily Sports playlists.
  • For Vulture, I wrote about the Michelle Obama podcast.

On Servant of Pod. In tomorrow’s episode, I talk with ESPN Daily’s Pablo Torre and Eve Troeh about making a daily sports podcast when sports is… you know, super weird right now.

Some background: ESPN Daily first rolled out last October — remember October? Geez — where it was positioned as the sports media giant’s flagship podcast. That framing has always been sorta interesting to me, given that ESPN already had a fairly robust podcast portfolio to begin with, one that’s rich with a mix of popular broadcast repackages and an assortment of more interesting nichier stuff. (Shout-out to the Lowe Post, the Woj Pod, and the amazing 30 for 30 podcast team.) The introduction of ESPN Daily, then, has projects a feel of going after a sense of prestige, or at least the creation of a focal point to concentrate the way people might think about ESPN’s on-demand audio machinations separate from its formidable radio presence.

There’s been some reshuffling with ESPN Daily of late. It originally launched with Mina Kimes behind the mic, but she recently left the production to serve as ESPN’s new NFL analyst, which is said to be her dream job. She was ultimately replaced by Pablo Torre, who was just coming off the cancellation of High Noon, the afternoon sports talk show he hosted with Bomani Jones. (An aside: I was actually a big fan of High Noon, though if I were to be honest, I wasn’t surprised that it got cancelled. There was something about its deliberate, thoughtful nature that didn’t seem like a good structural fit for the broadcast context. A streaming service, perhaps. Maybe a podcast?)

But the production has retained a strong sense of continuity, due in no small part to Eve Troeh, the show’s senior editorial producer and constant variable. She’s shepherded the podcast through its opening innings, the great sports shut-down — which kicked off in earnest shortly after the NBA ceased operations when Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11 — and now, the erratic high-wire attempt to rebuild the sports world in the shadow of a pandemic.

I had a particularly good time speaking with Torre (whose work I’ve followed for years) and Troeh (whose name I’ve heard tossed around, also, for years), not least because I’m a fairly ardent sports nut. Additionally, it’s always fun for me to talk to a Very Public Asian, of which there simply aren’t enough.

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.

Photo of Arielle Duhaime-Ross by Marin Driguez.

POSTED     Aug. 18, 2020, 10:52 a.m.
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