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Audio Art Is Blossoming During the Pandemic

A team of artists created a multisensory digital show to project onto Boston’s Hatch Memorial Shell, a riverside performance venue that has been vacated for months. Photo: Aram Boghosian

From Axios: “Ron Steslow, a political strategist who hosted The Lincoln Project’s podcast, is launching a new podcast company called Politicology, promising ‘politics without the blinders.’” The announcement comes in the wake of online harassment accusations levied against another Lincoln Project founder, John Weaver.

➽ UK prime minister Boris Johnson is apparently due to announce the appointment of Paul Dacre, former editor of the tabloid Daily Mail, as the chair of Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator. This has … shall we say, implications for the BBC. Read The Guardian on the matter.

From The Hollywood Reporter: “Jeffrey Wright Starring in Batman Podcast From HBO Max.” So, you’re telling me that there’s another star-studded Batman podcast?

Switched On Pop is now part of the Vulture family. Speaking of which…

Emily Gould wrote about Appearances for Vulture!

➽ Finally, also for the site, I interviewed Trump Inc’s Ilya Marritz and Matt Collette about the end of the podcast. Shout-out to these two gentlemen of sports.

➽ TikTok… has an official podcast now?

An Inside Look at Three Cases of Audio Art

By Aria Bracci

At one point, The World According to Sound was a podcast. A 90-second, narration-less podcast, but a podcast.

It captured sound, not stories, like the slurp of a mudpot. Born from Sam Harnett and Chris Hoff’s frustration with the conventions of narrative audio, it eschewed information transmission for pure sensory experience. And when the pair created longer segments and turned the show into an in-person event in 2017, people routinely filled the room.

The World According to Sound.

With no news and no numbers to remember, it’s easy to get lost in the piece. You’re more likely to acknowledge the pace; to acknowledge the discomfort of hearing the sound of a particular ringtone, perhaps because it reminds you of an ex; to acknowledge the person sitting next to you, how differently they could be interpreting the piece, how their presence makes you bashful. The sounds themselves may be strong and provocative on their own, but they wouldn’t be the same in solitude, whether of place or thought. In any case, they were never intended to be heard that way.

Flexibility of consumption has continued to be the central appeal of podcasts. They are whatever you want, whenever you want. Harnett and Hoff’s project was defined by the opposite: curated without your input, to be simultaneously enjoyed. Not one to omit his forebears, Harnett acknowledges the obvious similarities of terrestrial radio; current options, however, exist largely at two poles — 24 hours of impersonal music options or a few windows of nationally syndicated news. Beyond when you’re listening to locally produced programming, it’s hard to acknowledge your fellow listeners, let alone appreciate the experience you’re sharing (especially if you’re also trying to track the NASDAQ).

Harnett and Hoff felt that modern audio — however defined — lacked a genuine collective sense and a space for aesthetics on their own. In that spirit, after COVID-19 halted their in-person events, they decided to revive The World According To Sound virtually, in a throwback to the times they’d been able to broadcast their 90-second segments on air, though with more emphasis than ever on the fact that, if you were tuning in, somebody else was, too.

And so, every week since December 3, Harnett and Hoff have streamed a curated series of sounds, titled Outside In, via YouTube Live. The contents of one installment, “Bodies,” ranged from recitations of vowel sounds to recordings of an autopsy. At times, the two say they’ve included identifiably pre-COVID content, such as recordings of a restaurant, to both employ the sentimentality they evoke and, in a way, offer a version of listeners’ experiences back to them; and even if it wasn’t your experience, it was somebody else’s.

Inherent in the effect of this work is its emphasis on shared sentiment, which can usurp shared location. But, hey, if shared location is possible, too, why not take it?

In Boston, Massachusetts, a more place-based experiment is underway. In celebration of a local anniversary, artists Maria Finkelmeier and Pamela Hersch were recruited to create a multisensory digital show to project onto the Hatch Memorial Shell, a riverside performance venue that had been vacated for months. During the 15-minute-long Hatched: Breaking through the Silence, viewers are taken through an emotionally wrenching instrumental story that’s representative of the pain and tumult of the past year, says Finkelmeier, half of which attendees watch and the other half they hear, individually streaming it on their phones.

The rationale for making it an in-your-ears experience was mostly pragmatic: It would hopefully keep people (six feet) away from one another, and it spared nearby residents the spillover sound. But the execution also aligns it with non-musical contemporaries, namely Outside In. Attendees press play all at once, embarking on the journey together.

The impact of such events derives from the unfamiliar (and arguably anti-capitalist) practice of wading through abstract sounds that have no explicit educational value, as well as the knowledge that other people are doing it right alongside you — or, at least they were at some point. That’s just it, says Finkelmeier: People can always save the audio from Hatched (the same is true for Outside In, all of which is recorded and archived for ticket holders) and, should they choose to listen again, the knowledge that they weren’t alone when they first experienced it will be palpable. When you have a “timestamp of life,” she says, the presence of others sticks around.

A sense of shared experience makes even on-demand audio able to stake a claim in this area. It’s in this way that, across the Charles River in Medford, Massachusetts, a budding project called Sound on Mystic can still achieve connectivity through a physically solitary journey.

Audio, submitted by about a dozen local artists, will be anchored to specific points on a digital map and triggered to play when users approach those points. The experience, housed in an app, is “interactive, it’s immersive, and it’s responding to your motion,” says Ian Coss, an area producer and sound designer who co-created the project. “And it’s pretty accurate, to within about ten feet or so.”

Public art is inherently connective, says Coss, “and even though [Sound on Mystic] is not social — and, by and large, I think it is something people will do on their own — to me, simply placing it in public gives it a kind of social or communal nature,” he says. “That feels special — and something that’s really missing.”

What’s more, even though the types of audio that creators can submit are vast — spoken word, oral histories, sound art, and ambient recordings are just a few — their content will all in some way relate to the Mystic River, the physical setting where people will listen. Like Hatched, the project will draw people out of their homes for a COVID-era spin on public listening, complete with the additional and somewhat startling realization that the artist currently filling your ears may have stood exactly where you’re standing.

There have always been concerts, and one day they’ll come back, but these projects represent something entirely different. They speak right to you, with all the nuance and intimacy that podcasts typically bring, but reminding you that you’re not alone. It can be as special and individual for you as it is for the next guy.

Those two truths are not contradictory; they’re complementary. This is a new kind of experience, a journey individually taken but collectively enjoyed, something personal that you can actually discuss. This experience, in a way, is what current events have so painfully provided; it’s about time there’s one we can more willingly begin.

Locked On, Snatched Up

David Locke was audibly tired when we spoke on Friday afternoon.

As the founding executive for the Locked On Podcast Network, Locke had just wrapped up an afternoon-long and virtual office-hour session to answer questions from his hosts about the company’s sale. Two days before, the network announced that it was going to be acquired by TEGNA, the media group spun off from Gannett that largely specializes in broadcasting and local media. And given that the network has about 250 hosts in its roster, there were a lot of questions.

Still, Locke was eager to talk, despite the fact that not long after our call he was due over at his other day job: as play-by-play announcer for the Utah Jazz Radio Network, a role he continues to hold even after starting the podcast network in 2016. “I’ve never been through anything like this,” he said, of the acquisition. “This has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and the most stressful thing I’ve ever done.”

From a publishing standpoint, the Locked On Podcast Network is best described as a sprawling operation — managed remotely from Utah — that predominantly deals in short-form, daily, local sports podcasts. It’s home to over 160 shows, the bulk of which are each dedicated to dishing takes on a specific sports team in a specific local market. Those are rounded out by programs that, while not tethered to a particular team, are nevertheless pegged to a lane: fantasy sports, for example, or simply the biggest news of the day in a given league.

There has been some momentum towards the latter type of projects in recent months, but the local orientation is the network’s bread and butter. The way Locke tells it, the venture was premised on creating a company powered by a deep roster of talent who each serve as the designated expert on their respective teams. “Our model from the very beginning was daily short-form programming from local experts,” said Locke. “Your team, every day, on demand, with local experts covering the biggest stories — that was our branding mantra.”

As mentioned, he’s recruited about 250 such local experts, pulling them from a variety of sources and setting them up as independent contractors with the network. And much like Locke, the hosts usually hold other jobs in addition to their Locked On programs.

I should note: Locked On isn’t the only sports podcast operation that publishes an array of team-specific programming. To this date, we’ve seen similar efforts carried out by The Athletic and Vox Media’s SB Nation brand, among others, but Locked On is fairly distinct for a few reasons: The network aggressively defines itself as a locally minded venture, it’s aesthetically similar to the conventional sports broadcasting world, and it wasn’t part of a bigger media company.

Well, until now. Locke tells me that TEGNA approached them for the sale, and claims that the network wasn’t previously on the market for a buyer. It didn’t exactly come out of the blue, as both parties had collaborated in the past on a few local market experiments. In any case, Locke liked what TEGNA was pitching. “I thought they had an insightful vision of the future,” he said. “They made it easy in that they told us exactly what they wanted to do, and that they’d like to have myself and my business partner, Carl Weinstein, committed to stay on.”

He added, “I don’t want to make this sound too altruistic… obviously, there’s also a transaction that’s taking place.”

On that note: The exact financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, though the circulated press release indicates that TEGNA will “finance the acquisition through available cash on hand” and that the transaction is “not expected to have a material impact” on its financials this year. In other words, it seems reasonable to assume the deal to be somewhat modest, which makes sense for what TEGNA’s getting: a podcast operation defined by sheer publishing volume, though one that isn’t super efficient on a listens-per-episode-per-show basis.

According to the press release, the network averaged 8 million monthly listens across all its shows by the end of 2020, and ultimately accrued 80 million listens over the course of the whole year. Given the network’s considerable publishing volume, said to be around 600 episodes per week, per-episode listens are presumed to be pretty compact. Still, inventory is inventory, and given the fact that these shows tend to be a secondary gig for the hosts, it’s an arrangement that probably works out to a value-add for most involved.

Locke tells me the company is primarily monetized through advertising, which he claims continued to grow even over the past year. That, by the way, reflects the network’s ability to weather COVID-19 more broadly. “Our numbers slid, but not as much as I thought it would,” he said. “I thought we were going to zero, but I don’t think we ever lost more than 35% of our audience.” He credits his hosts, who kept conversations going despite sports leagues grinding to a halt for a few months.

It’s a tidy exit for Locked On, which was bootstrapped for much of its life. The company only took outside funding once, in late 2019, when it raised $750,000 from a small group of investors including Bruce Gordon, the former CFO of Disney Interactive Media Group; Summit Capital, a private equity firm; and Podfund, the podcast-specific investment group now controlled by TechNexus.

“We’re really happy for Locked-On and the team,” said Andrew Annacone, managing partner at TechNexus. “It’s a great match for growing the company in the future and a strong exit… for Locked-On, given its business model, Tegna is a great platform to expand commercial opportunities and scale the company further in local markets.”

And the exit may well come at a good time — at least, in Locke’s assessment.

“It’s getting really hard out there,” he said, when asked for his thoughts on sports podcasting and where the category is going. “To get advertising, your numbers have to be so big right now as an individual podcast. The giants can get that big — ESPN, Barstool, The Ringer — but we don’t see a lot of sports podcasts anymore launching that can crack through that group.”

He added: “I believe in local, still do, but it’s a basic problem: How do you launch a local podcast and gain enough listeners that brands or Ad Results or Veritone will listen to you?”

That question will mostly have to be answered by other upstarts now, including Blue Wire Podcasts, which recently raised a $5 million Series A round for its own pursuits in local and national sports podcasting. Locked On, meanwhile, will now have to figure out what life looks like inside a much bigger local media operation, and what comes next for its hosts.

“I’m excited about what we can do for our hosts in the next period of time,” said Locke. “We’ve got a lot of truly talented people… they are the next generation of great sports reporters, and we can really work to put the shine on them now.”

On a slightly related note… iHeartMedia has struck a partnership with Colin Cowherd, the sports broadcaster, to launch a new sports podcast network called The Volume. The network launched yesterday with five shows, including a new podcast from Cowherd himself.

According to Bloomberg, the venture is fully owned by Cowherd, with iHeartMedia serving as the ad sales partner. Which means that it’s a little different from a similar-but-not-the-same talent deal arrangement iHeartMedia struck with the prominent broadcaster Charlamagne tha God to form the Black Effect podcast network. That company, I can confirm, is a joint venture.

City Cast to Debut Next Month

I wrote about City Cast at length back in October, so I’m going to try to keep this one short. Or not.

As a refresher, City Cast is a forthcoming local news company founded by David Plotz and backed by Graham Holdings that’s set to primarily revolve around two types of media products: podcasts and newsletters. (Very du jour.) To the extent it can be efficiently summarized, the company has two big ideas. One is to build out a network of city-specific operations across the country, and the other is to have its city-specific podcasts and newsletters defined by the personalities behind the mic and keyboard. Think The Gist but for a specific city, or sports talk radio but for city civics, or perhaps something that isn’t quite a metaphor.

Anyway, the company announced its first two cities last week: Chicago and Denver.

The Chicago podcast will be hosted by Jacoby Cochran, a writer and educator based in the South Side whose work has been featured on The Moth, Snap Judgment, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. WBEZ veteran Carrie Shepherd will lead production on the podcast, and she’ll be supported by Simone Alicea, who joins from KNKX in Seattle. A newsletter writer for the city has yet to be hired.

Denver’s podcast will be hosted by Bree Davies, a local activist and multimedia journalist. Leading that production will be Paul Karolyi, an independent producer who previously worked at House of Pod, the Denver-area production space. The company has yet to hire the second producer for the podcast as well as the newsletter writer for the city.

From these team compositions, you should be able to get a sense of an operational template. Speaking over the phone yesterday, Plotz tells me that each city will feature one host, one lead producer, one junior producer, and a lone newsletter writer… at least for now. I imagine things may change as theory meets application.

There have also been two recent additions to City Cast HQ: Andi McDaniel, who joins as Chief Creative Officer, and Sarah Menendez, who joins as Project Manager. You can presumably intuit the nature of the former role: working to figure out the product experience, carve out an identity, establish a sense of something that works. The latter, meanwhile, is in the business of setting the company up to scale over time: implementing the right processes, game-planning out future needs, getting everyone coordinated. Given City Cast’s bigger aspirations of filling up the gaps left open by a crumbling local news industry, it’s in their interest to proactively plan for scaling up with pace and flexibility.

We are, of course, far from any reasonable point to assess whether the City Cast premise will succeed, but I wanted to know the most appropriate way to read the company moving forward to get a handle if the venture is working out. After all, any locally-oriented media company will be structurally disadvantaged when read within conventional digital rubrics, generally premised on the idea of collapsing geography.

I’m told some traditional metrics will matter: downloads, newsletter subscribers, return listens, open rates, and so on. At this primordial stage, though, the task is simply about getting from zero to one, which means an emphasis on growth, some semblance of product-market fit, and whether it’s becoming a daily habit for people — all approximate markers of whether communities actually want what City Cast is giving. Plotz draws attention to the amorphous sense of whether these podcasts will become “part of the conversation” of a city, which may well be something that’s difficult for someone on the outside looking in to adequately assess.

Relatedly, talk of revenue also feels premature at this point, though it’s certainly the layer I’m most interested in over the long run. Can’t save local news if you can’t save yourself and all that. “The next hire will probably be on the business side,” said Plotz. “Right now, we’re business-light, as we’re mostly focusing on the product. We’re certainly not going to wait around too much, but any monetization we do in the initial months will just be gravy.”

Both podcasts will launch sometime next month, with Chicago going first. The timeline for announcing the next city remains unclear.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the elephant in the room with McDaniel’s hiring. Last summer, McDaniel, formerly the Chief Content Officer at WAMU, had accepted a job as the chief executive of Chicago Public Media and was originally scheduled to step into the role in September, after her maternity leave. But in the time between, several news reports were published that raised concerns about the station, including from WAMU’s own DCist site. The stories run the gamut: a workplace culture that enabled bad behaviora staff revolt, and the resignation of a general manager. These stories, in turn, raised additional questions about McDaniel’s time in WAMU management. In November, she withdrew from the Chicago Public Media job. It was said to be a mutually agreed-upon decision.

When I brought it up during our call yesterday, McDaniel approached the answer with tact and caution. This was understandable; it was among the first times she was speaking on the record about the matter. She focused her response on the new job, stating that she was excited to work in a company that carries many of the values rooted in public media, while acknowledging the complications and sensitivity of the WAMU-WBEZ situation. “What I feel is really important to convey is just how much respect I have for both those organizations and for public media overall,” she said.

Plotz vouched for McDaniel. “I talked to a lot of people in WAMU and did a fair amount of digging into the turmoil there,” he said. “And based on my conversations and research, I am 150% confident in Andi’s integrity, leadership ability, and commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

He added: “As far as I’m concerned, public media’s loss is City Cast’s gain.”

Audio Art Is Blossoming During the Pandemic