Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 122, published June 6, 2017.
I sunk a lot of hours this weekend trying to write a column on “Peak Podcasting,” following some inspiration from a tweet by the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary — which speaks to a broad feeling that I’ve been seeing a lot of — but I’m going to postpone that discussion to next week. For now, let’s talk WWDC, Gimlet, and JSON.
How will we know when we hit peak podcast?— Lizzie O’Leary (@lizzieohreally) June 2, 2017
WWDC. The big Apple developer’s conference — which serves as a periodic hub for major product and upgrade announcements from the tech colossus — started in San Jose yesterday, and there are two big things you probably need to know.
(1) We’re getting a redesigned Podcasts app that’ll come with the announced iOS 11 update. Official details are scant at the moment, and while your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit, there are a couple of screenshots of the new app floating about from this thread, which also hint at potential upcoming livestreaming tool support. Meanwhile, on the WWDC schedule, there’s an Apple Podcasts session due to take place on Friday, and it notes in the description: “iOS 11 upgrades the Apple Podcasts app to support to new feed structures for serialized shows.” From screenshots coming out of Twitter, it looks as if this in part means bundling by season, and providing a little more control over how episodes are presented to listeners over the feed. (It’s the small stuff that goes a really long way.)
As a sidenote, it’s notable that these changes seem to be particularly focused on better serving serialized shows, to the point it even shows up in the official language. Such shows — like Serial, S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons, and so on — do tend to be the medium’s breakout hits, though they are merely one of many show structures that exist in the space. Anyway, there’s probably a lot more to come on this; I’ll be on the lookout.
The iOS 11 update is scheduled to drop sometime this fall, alongside the new iPhone.
(2) You might already be aware of this, given that it was the closer: Apple finally unveiled its own foray into smart speakers, which comes in the form of a bulbous appliance rather awkwardly called the HomePod. (Apropos of nothing, it might time to rename this newsletter. I’m taking suggestions.)
It goes without saying that Apple finally breaking into the smart speaker category — and bringing with it the full body of its media ecosystem — is a big, chunky story with a lot to parse out. Now, I’m no technology journalist, but I will say that I’m deeply curious to see how Apple’s move here will add competition to the market currently dominated by the Amazon Echo. Some indicators suggest that Amazon has built a pretty far lead in this category with its line of fairly affordable smart speakers, and given the fact that Apple’s HomePod is priced at $349 to start (for reference, the Echo Dot goes for about $50), it seems as if Apple will be sliding into the market on the luxury end and will at least initially play more toward its moneyed base, which was more or less what it did with the smartphone. While it’s understandable to replicate that move, it does mean that whatever improvements the smart speaker brings to the podcast listening experience — and whatever listening gains for publishers and podcasters might come from it — we’re probably not going to be seeing much of a substantial broadening of the active listening base from a demographic perspective, at least not initially. Indeed, if anything, we’re probably going to see a deepening within the category of audiences already predisposed to podcasts.
Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to think through the big picture here: The higher aspirational register for this emerging set of products is the seeding of an audio-first computing experience, one of the alternative beachfronts for the “ambient computing” version of the consumer tech future highlighted in Walt Mossberg’s final column. To play this out further, the long-term structural value that this potential shift brings is one that ultimately liberates the growth trajectory of on-demand audio content from being principally tethered to the mobile device toward a trajectory that extends across whatever vessels audio-first computing is going to be channeled through in the future.
All right, that’s a whole lot of horizon-staring chin-stroking, so let’s kick it back a notch and talk present-day industry scuttlebutt. (Read the Nieman Lab writeup if you’re looking for more keynote takeaways for publishers.)
Gimlet makes a curious acquisition. In what is probably a sign of the times, Gimlet announced this week that it’s bringing on a new show from outside its trendy Gowanus walls: The Pitch, which is basically Shark Tank but a podcast. The show is made and hosted by Josh Muccio, a Florida-based entrepreneur.
The Pitch was first published in 2015, when Muccio developed the show in partnership with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sheel Mohnot. The show was able to carve out a niche audience during its initial run, and as the story goes, after the first season, Muccio decided to take it in a different direction, redeveloping the concept and raising a small production team around the enterprise that included, among others, Devon Taylor, a freelancer who worked on Radiotopia’s Millennial.
Muccio shopped the second season around different networks — a common practice these days, in case you weren’t aware — before Gimlet ultimately moved to pick it up. That happened earlier this year, and I’m told that the acquisition process took about three weeks after Gimlet officially expressed interest in the project. As part of the deal, Muccio joined the company full time in early March, and Taylor, who by the way cofounded the now defunct podcast review site The Timbre (R.I.P.), was brought in full time as well.
The Pitch marks the first independent podcast that Gimlet has absorbed into its ranks, though it isn’t the company’s first acquisition. (The network brought over Science Vs, along with host Wendy Zukerman, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year.) In many ways, it’s a bit of an unexpected addition for the nearly three-year-old company, which has thus far built a strong reputation off a portfolio of highly produced, narrative-driven programming — you know, the kind of stuff you’d lump into a pile with This American Life and 99% Invisible. The Pitch feels considerably different from the rest of Gimlet’s portfolio…though, if pressed, I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I quite enjoy the podcast, but I have a bit of trouble seeing how it fits into the Gimlet brand and house sound. And as I dig deeper into my gut reaction to the news, I can’t quite tell whether my response says more about my prejudices about reality programming — which I have a distinct palate for, by the way, one that I keep separate from the rest of my entertainment diet — or my own conceptions of what the Gimlet house style is supposed to be.
Matt Lieber, president of Gimlet, appears to hold a broader definition of that house style than I do. “I think it’s pretty consistent with our strategy,” he said when we spoke by phone Monday. Gimlet shows, according to Lieber, are largely defined by, among other things, a sense of curiosity, high production quality, and a strong point of view — all things, he argues, that The Pitch shares. Plus, the ambition of the whole reality programming dimension, and how it mingles with these core Gimlet principles, is a big part of what drew Gimlet to the project. “It combines the best of reality TV — that tension and excitement — and the best of narrative storytelling,” Lieber said. “Reality has always been a category we’ve been intrigued by. If you think about it, the first season of StartUp had some of those qualities.”
That StartUp connection, I think, is pretty meaningful. One way of reading the company’s history is to see it as having built an initial core audience off a show, StartUp, that appeals to those who are drawn to stories about entrepreneurship and technology. From this position, The Pitch, then, is an expansion of that genre offering within Gimlet’s portfolio, one that deepens the available product range for the entrepreneurship-oriented audience — and, subsequently, its extractable value for advertisers. Think about the kinds of people who listen to StartUp and podcasts about entrepreneurship, and then think about the types of advertisers who value that set of ears, and then think about capitalism and the resulting CPM rate. (Speaking of which, I’d love to tie NPR’s How I Built This into this somehow.)
One more thing before I move on. I was curious as to why Muccio decided to move onto a network, why he eschewed independence. Here’s his response:
1. The #1 way people find out about podcasts is on other podcasts. So the right network presents an opportunity for audience growth that would take years to build as an independent.
2. Advertising. Some networks have horrible CPMs and are known for really bad ads. But Gimlet is not one of them. They’re one of the best in the biz. If not the best. We sold our own ads for The Pitch. It’s really REALLY hard to do well. This wasn’t an area I was willing to compromise so I’m lucky to be joining a network that is really crushing it on the advertising front. Bottom line? Ads on The Pitch are higher quality and more profitable.
3. Focus and specialization. I wore all the hats as an independent producer. I did pretty damn well considering, but still you can only be so good at any one thing when you have 50 other things you also need to be good at. Joining a network has allowed me to focus on building a great show, refining my skills as a host and building a team that can carry the vision of the show with me. Ultimately building something with a team of amazing people is more fulfilling to me than building something in a silo.
The Pitch debuts under new management on June 14. There will also be a crossover episode with the StartUp podcast on that day.
Side note. Deadline reported a new development on the upcoming Homecoming TV adaptation: Julia Roberts is currently in talks for the lead role, which was played by Catherine Keener in the podcast. The project looks like it’s still in its pretty early stages, so fans shouldn’t get too attached to the prospect of an adaptation just yet.
A directory, a list, a market. “Podcast discovery is broken,” goes the familiar critique, the opening gambit of most product pitches that hit my inbox. And it was as true two or three years ago as it is now — though as longtime readers might know, I’m wont to think of it mostly as a secondary issue, not one that’s fatally prohibitive to the long-term fate of the space. I imagine some will disagree. In any case, I still read every email that hits my inbox on the matter.
The latest of such gambits is something called PodSearch, and there is some reason to pay attention here. A project of Patty and Dave Newmark, proprietors of Newmark Advertising and longtime audio advertising operatives with strong relationships on the advertising side of the industry, PodSearch boasts a premise that’s so straightforward as to be blunt: It’s the Yellow Pages, but for podcasts.
There isn’t a ton about PodSearch that’s interesting from a design perspective, particularly on the business-to-consumer side. A lot of its touted features — search, personalization, top-show categorizations — are table stakes as far as digital products in 2017 are concerned, and there are some things about the interface that create an unnecessarily high level of friction for potential users, like requiring visitors to make an account before being to actually use the platform.
I see the theoretical value of the product for consumers, of course. Having a consolidated point of reference for the whole space that’s marginally more organized than Apple Podcasts (née iTunes) is nice, though perhaps not quite the drop of water in the desert it’s made out to be, and I’m partial to the view that more competition on the directory and search portal-level is always good for podcast discovery. However, execution matters more than ideas, as the old adage goes, and there’s a long road ahead for PodSearch to make a good first impression. (And second, and third, and fourteenth.)
That said, here are two things to consider:
(1) PodSearch has potential to create genuine value for advertisers. In researching this story, a few people brought up the way in which it might quietly solve a discovery problem of another kind: Advertisers and agencies, I’m told, currently have to do a fair bit of manual digging around to generate a list of podcasts (and their respective contact information for sponsorship inquiries) to potentially buy spots off, and so a directory that’s able to provide an easily digestible serving of the menu on offer, with the relevant contact information, would be useful for this community. And given the Newmarks’ expertise and history, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re able to create a decent market on the advertiser side of the equation.
(2) One way that PodSearch is interesting to me is how it can serve as a vessel to get the most utility out of search engines for its listed podcasts writ large. When I spoke with Dave last week, he spoke of a meaningful volume search queries for terms relating to podcasts on a general level — “What is a podcast?”, “How do I listen to one?”, and so on — and how there isn’t much incentive for individual publishers to aggressively capitalize on those generic paid search terms. And so, by assuming the position of a wholesale podcast directory, PodSearch is able to make those spends on behalf of publishers and extract value from those broad queries for its listing participants. There’s a lot of juice in this fruit, and I’m compelled to see if the utility here can be appropriately realized.
In sum, I really do think there’s a lot more value for PodSearch to pursue a more explicit business-to-business path than one that also tacks on a business-to-consumer dimension. Solving discovery for everyday users is a tough and deeply nuanced problem in 2017, and as far as digital media categories are concerned, we live in a world with high thresholds for user experience expectations — and it’s only going to get higher.
Two more things to mull over in your own assessment about the service:
- There’s a cost associated with listing on the directory ($9.99 a month, which might feel steep for most that are already paying comparable amounts for hosting), and a small cost for advertisers to access the aforementioned point-of-contact information ($19.99 a year). I’m told that the costs are to qualify leads on both sides, and I imagine it also generates revenue for the platform to keep the lights on, which is fair.
- The Newmarks are kicking off PodSearch with some major publisher partnerships already in the bag; in the press outreach email, I was informed that the company is fielding sales chiefs from National Public Media, Public Media Marketing, Midroll, and Panoply to talk on the record about the initiative. We’re talking institutional support here; let’s see how that shakes out.
Developments over at HowStuffWorks. Back in March, it was reported that Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, who founded the online curiosity Mental Floss back in 2001, were leaving the company to develop a new podcast for HowStuffWorks. That project is now public: it’s called Part Time Genius, and it appears to be some combination of game show and a piece of education media. In other words, the show sounds a lot like Stephen Dubner’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and it fits into HowStuffWorks’ wheelhouse pretty neatly.
Part Time Genius will launch with four full episodes in the feed. That happens on June 7.
Meanwhile, HowStuffWorks has also relaunched its popular Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast, almost half a year after the show’s previous hosts, Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, left the show to launch their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (You can find my story on that, which touches on questions of ownership and network arrangements, can be found here.) The new setup features Emilie Aries and Bridget Todd in the hosting seat, and they will be based in Washington, DC.
“Replacing a host or hosts is not easy, especially when you consider that so much of what makes podcasting great is the personal connection between listeners and the hosts,” wrote Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, through a PR rep about the transition. “We really wanted to take our time finding new hosts that could continue on with the show’s message, but we also wanted to make sure we were pushing ourselves to continue to evolve the show. We felt from the get-go that it was better to take our time finding the absolute best hosts for the show instead of rushing into this.”
Hoch added: “For any podcast, it does take some time to settle into a rhythm and build chemistry between co-hosts, producers and listeners. But this is also what makes podcasting so special — it’s analogous to finding a new friend. It builds over time.”
An uptick in support for a new podcast delivery format. I don’t spend a ton of time digging into the technical and infrastructural end of podcasts, and I’d like to be clear here that I only have a pedestrian understanding of the issues. But a recent string of announcements have caught my eye: Over the past week or so, a few third-party podcast apps, including Breaker, Fireside, and Cast, have all added support for the JSON Feed format. JSON is a data-interchange format, a way in which computers exchange information with one another, and JSON Feed is an RSS-like feed format built on top of it. The trend was written up by noted technology writer John Gruber at his site Daring Fireball, which is how I initially bumped into the story.
As far as I can tell, there’s some philosophical significance here among technologists who are developing tools for the podcast space. But I wanted to get a broad sense of what it means for those outside that category of people, and so I reached out to Leah Culver and Erik Michaels-Ober of Breaker to help explain some things to me.
The main takeaway? It’s largely a matter of efficiency, as the argument goes.
“JSON is generally more compact than XML,” the team wrote back. (XML is the format that provides the foundation for RSS which, as you might know, is currently the primary format of the podcast space.) “All things being equal, the JSON Feed could be transferred between two computers 27% faster and the transmission costs would be 27% lower. In a competitive marketplace, these types of cost savings are typically distributed in one or more of three ways: (1) returned to consumers, in the form of lower prices, (2), returned to shareholders, in the form of a dividend, and (3) reinvested in the business. Each of these has either direct or indirect benefits to consumers and podcasters. Essentially, the argument here is that efficiency is an end in itself. There no reason for computers to communicate more verbosely when they could communicate more concisely.”
They added: “Beyond efficiency, there are no new capabilities unlocked by JSON Feed. If all goes according to plan for JSON Feed, consumers and podcasters won’t notice that anything has changed—other than the podcast services they use have become cheaper or better, due to improved resource utilization.”
So, what’s listed here is actually an abbreviated version of a much longer Q&A with Michaels-Ober and Culver, which gets fairly wonky and technical. You can find the full discussion in this Google Doc.
- NPR’s Invisibilia returned for its third season last week, and this time around it boasts a unifying season-wide structure: playfully tethered to the idea of a “concept album,” this chunk of episodes will all revolve around the theme of concepts. (NPR)
- Feral Audio, home of Harmontown, recently launched a comedy podcast focused entirely on stories and the happenings that go on in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. It’s a curious take on the whole locally-minded media thread; we’ll see if they actually harvest anything interesting out of the conceit. (Feral Audio)
- Kids Listen, the loose collective that advocates for children’s programming in the podcast space, has a website now. Watch the space for upcoming initiatives and roster expansions by the group. (Kids Listen)
- AudioBoom recently commissioned a study with Edison Research on listener demographics. It’s worth checking out in full, but here’s a data point that caught my eye: Only 22 percent of respondents reported that they currently have mail-order subscriptions to companies like Blue Apron, Birchbox, and Barkbox. That’s a lot lower than I would ordinarily think. (LinkedIn)
- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a podcast now…and, uh, I didn’t think much of it. (WBEZ)
- Not directly podcast-related, but I loved reading this: “In well-mannered public radio, an airwaves war,” a story about WBUR and WGBH, which have struck up a fascinating coexistence in the public radio-friendly city of Boston. (The Boston Globe)