- The choice to target the evening commute is a really, really smart one. I’ve argued this before, but I think it’s safe to assume that there might be considerable overlap between the audiences of The New York Times and Vox.com. As such, a move to complement The Daily is significantly more prudent than engaging it as a direct competitor. In any case, even if the overlap was small, the evening commute remains untapped by the daily news podcast to begin with — aside from Mike Pesca’s The Gist, of course, which isn’t really playing the same game anyway. It’s a safer, and therefore more reliable, base to build from, and besides, Today, Explained could always expand with an a.m. version at some point in the future. (Same goes with The Daily and a p.m. version, a prospect that it has previously explored with breaking news specials.
- In case it fully doesn’t come across in the writeup: I think Today, Explained’s success will mostly hinge on Sean Rameswaram’s personality — more so, I’d argue, than how Michael Barbaro fits into The Daily as a presence. Which is, I suppose, kind of the point when you bring in someone with a specific sense of showmanship like Rameswaram to headline a project.
- Here’s Vox.com general manager Andrew Golis, responding to an inquiry about how the podcast fits into the company’s overall business goals: “It gives us an opportunity to have an audio daily presence in our audience’s life in the way our website does in text and our YouTube channel does in video. That persistent relationship and trust is a powerful platform for building our business…we believe ‘Today, Explained’ will give us a new way to introduce audiences to a growing network of Vox podcasts as we continue to expand our ambitions and programming.”
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Midroll Media’s involvement in the production. The Scripps-owned podcast company serves as the exclusive advertising partner for Today, Explained, but I’m also told that they provided upfront investment to help assemble the team and build out the production. Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief content officer, was also involved in the development of the show. “Creatively speaking, I spent a day in D.C. with the Vox team, and together we started sourcing host and staff candidates,” explained Bannon over email. “Right now we’re in the fun part, listening to show drafts and sharing notes. They’re alarmingly well-organized, cheerful, and efficient.” Bannon, by the way, worked with Rameswaram back when he was still at WNYC. (He left for Midroll in early 2015.)
- A six-part narrative series from Gizmodo about “a controversial and charismatic spiritual guru who uses the internet to build her obsessive following.” That show is being developed with Pineapple Street Media, which appears to be really carving out a niche around themes of obsession, charismatic leaders, and the followings they spawn, following Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate.
- A show for Jalopnik called Tempest, which will examine “the funny and at times tragic intersectionality of people and cars.”
- A series that “explores the connectivity of our DNA” — which evokes memories of Gimlet’s Twice Removed — featuring Grammy Award-winning artist René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente. Gretta Cohn’s Transmitter Media is assisting with this project.
- A collaboration with The California Endowment that’ll produce stories on young activists “who are using their platforms to promote solidarity between different communities and causes.”
As ESPN has done with other technologies — be it cable TV in 1979, the Internet in the ’90s, HD television or mobile initiatives more recently — we embraced podcasting as soon as we could and ran with it — even if we didn’t always know where we would end up! We launched our first podcast way back in 2005. A head start is often critical in a competitive business environment. I also chuckle when people refer to podcasting as some mysterious new format to figure out. I’ve spent a career in audio, and I can tell you the key ingredients for compelling audio are constant…Yeah, I don’t know, dude. The borderline condescending tone of the post isn’t exactly something I’d want to hear from a company whose public narrative is one of crisis on multiple fronts — from the disruption of its cable-bundle–reliant business model to layoffs to its uneven handling of social media policies to the uncertain future of a gamble on OTT distribution — let alone a podcast publisher whose Podtrac ranking placement (as always, disclaimers of that service here and here) is powered by what is still largely a spray-and-pray strategy, in which 82 shows are deployed to bring in 35 million global unique monthly downloads. For reference, the infinitely smaller PRX team gets 4 million more with less than half that number of shows (34 podcasts), while NPR bags three times more downloads with just 42 podcasts that don’t at all traffic in naturally addictive sports content. To be clear, I am, very generally speaking, more appreciative of a world with a strong (and better) ESPN in it than one without. And let me also just say that I really like some of its recent moves in on-demand audio, namely the creation of the 30 for 30 Podcast and having Katie Nolan launch her own show. But I just don’t think very highly of this whole “oh we’ve been doing this for a long time/we were doing this first therefore we are super wise” mindset that either mistakes early sandbox dabblings for meaningful first-mover value creation or simply being first for being noteworthy. To be fair, this isn’t a knock that exclusively applies to Keller’s blog post; that thinking governs an alarming share of press releases and huffy emails that hit my inbox. But here’s the thing: I really don’t think it matters whether you did first. What mostly matters is if you did it right. Which is to say: If you invented Facebook, dammit, you’d have invented Facebook. Furthermore, as it stands, if there’s anything I’m acutely aware of writing this newsletter every week, it’s that, much like everywhere else, nobody really knows anything. It’s just a bunch of people working really hard, trying to figure this whole podcast thing out. Anyway. I normally try not to be too worked up about anything, but this stuff really bugs me, and goodness, there’s nothing I would love more than to take this mindset, strap it onto the next Falcon Heavy rocket, and launch it straight into the dying sun. Still, credit should be given where’s credit due: The post goes on to discuss what I think is a really positive development for ESPN’s podcast business:
To get there, we pared our lineup — once numbering in triple digits — to about 35, focusing on the most popular offerings (NFL, MLB, and NBA) and other niche topics where we can “own” the category. It’s a “less is more” strategy, where we can better produce and promote a smaller lineup.Which reminds me of something… After spray-and-pray. ESPN’s move to pare down and focus its overflowing podcast portfolio reminds me of another podcast publisher that’s been pretty active since the first podcast boom: NPR. NPR’s podcast inventory, too, once numbered in the triple digits. In August 2005, its directory housed around 174 programs, 17 of which were NPR originals while others were shows from member stations that the public radio mothership were distributing on their behalf. (That practice has since been terminated.) The show number peaked around 2009, when the directory supported about 390 podcasts. “Back in those days, podcasts were hard to access and only the really digitally savvy listeners could find and download them,” an NPR spokesperson told me. “We were experimenting and we were excited with the possibility of putting out NPR content on-demand, repackaging content that had aired about specific topics, seeing what the audience would like…It also allowed for additional creativity in programming, podcasts could be a sandbox for piloting new ideas.” Some of those ideas eventually grew into segments and radio shows of their own, but these podcasts mostly ended up being an unruly system of small, quiet, under-the-radar projects. All that changed with this most recent podcasting boom, which started in the latter half of 2014. Around that time, a focused effort was made to identify and retain shows that fit a certain set of criteria that included having a native podcast experience (and not just recycled segments from existing shows), strong listener communities, an alignment with the organization’s business needs, and so on. The rest were culled. By the end, NPR was left with 25 shows. “Our thinking was that by having a smaller portfolio, we could draw more attention to them, serve them better, cross-promote, bring sponsorship support, create significant reach,” the spokesperson said. The move felt like a gamble at the time, but it paid off. “While everyone expected our downloads to go down, within two months, downloads were somewhere near 50 million a month,” remembered Audible’s Eric Nuzum, then vice president of programming at NPR. “Within a year, it was over 80.” That number is now 110 million. The point of this little parable is…well, I don’t think I have to spell it out. You get the picture. Call Your 2018. There are few teams I admire more than the trio behind Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast for long-distance besties everywhere: journalist Ann Friedman, international woman of mystery Aminatou Sow, and radio producer Gina Delvac. The show has, over its nearly four years of existence, evolved from a fun side project to stay connected into something so much more than that. It is, in equal parts, a platform, a community, and an ever-growing resource. And if the enthusiasm of some friends of mine who consider themselves devout CYG fans are any indicator, Call Your Girlfriend is also damn close to being a full-fledged movement. Last year was a difficult one for the team, given the political environment, but it was also a call to arms to which they responded with vigor. “Despite the trash-fire that was 2017 in America,” they wrote me, “Better yet, because of it, we wanted CYG to function as a place of refuge for our listeners, and for ourselves.” This translated into an interview schedule that was dense with guests that spoke directly to the moment — including but not limited to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Margaret Atwood, and Ellen Pao — as well as a multipart series on women running for office that featured sit-downs with first-time candidates and organizations that support women seeking political office. The team also worked to push the show creatively, producing a special episode on pelvic pain and trauma and occasionally handing the mic over to other podcasting teams, like Who? Weekly’s Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger along with Good Muslim Bad Muslim’s Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorkbakhsh. The year was also fruitful for Call Your Girlfriend’s business. Though specific numbers were not disclosed, I’m told that the show’s revenues — which come from a combination of ad sales, live events, and a healthy merchandising arm — far exceeded their original targets. More ambitious goals were set for the new year. We’re neck-deep into the second month of 2018, so I thought it was a good a time as any to check in with the team about their plans for the coming months, their thoughts on how the industry has changed, and their commitment to being independent. They were kind enough to oblige:
Photo of Sean Rameswaram by James Bareham/Vox Media.