This article first ran in Hot Pod, an industry-leading trade newsletter about podcasting by Nick Quah.
The reason why certain media products are shaped the way they are often comes down to a smashing together of different factors: the incentives of the distribution point; a mix of audience behavior, limitations, and expectations; the creative culture of the core production community; the nature of the business model; and so on. It is within this constellation of things that people who make stuff often try to find the right balance between their creative needs and the needs of the system. Television can reach all sorts of post-modern highs these days, but they still generally conform to a half-hour or hour-long construction. Films average around two and a half hours these days, presumably in part because paying inflated ticket prices for an hour-and-a-half film might feel a little weird in 2021. (Though, with simultaneous streaming releases, who knows.) These days, in an increasing number of digital contexts, the distributing platform exercises opaque power over all factors, but even under those conditions, those other factors nevertheless remain salient. There’s a reason YouTube thumbnails look the way they do, and why there’s a sameness to many of them. This is a long-winded way of saying: There are interlocking reasons for these things.
But what if you had a team dedicated to messing around with the force of those interlocking factors? That seems to be the central premise of The 11th, a new team at Pineapple Street focused on developing projects that don’t fit into what might be called “conventional podcast formats.” The team is composed of Joel Lovell, Leila Day, Jenelle Pifer, Eric Mennel, and Kristen Torres, all of whom were reallocated within the company to work on this idea full time.
Launching sometime in August, The 11th will principally take the form of a podcast feed that drops new projects every month (on the 11th, obviously). Each project will be headlined by a different contributor, and the works will vary vastly in structure, length, style, and aesthetic.
The emphasis, in other words, is on experimentation. “We’re thinking about it as a space to imagine what it’s like if there weren’t any rules,” said Leila Day, who listed out a few things they’re interested in exploring: the role of the host, blurring the lines between music and narrative, the episodic framework. The team wasn’t willing to give much detail about how those experiments will come across in the actual projects currently being developed, but they did disclose the broad strokes about two: The first is a “concept album” with the writer, critic, and poet Hanif Abdurraqib — of Lost Notes: 1980 and Object Of Sound fame, at least here in the podcast world, though he is of course much, much more known for his books and essays — and the second is a multi-part series with the writer Sarah Viren, who was nominated in this year’s National Magazine Awards.
I’m told that, like the shape of media products, the idea for The 11th itself came out of a cluster of interlocking factors: equal parts creative experiment, problem solving, and process limitations. To begin with, Joel Lovell, who joined Pineapple after a lengthy career as a magazine editor, had long harbored an interest in the question of figuring out what a magazine show — as opposed to a “magazine-style” show — could sound like. Meanwhile, the company had also been wondering what to do with many of the pitches they’d been receiving, particularly the ones that seem interesting and worth exploring but are probably not compatible with being blown out as a full eight-to-ten-part series.
On that note, there was also the notion of trying to explore both those things within the core business constraints that all profit-seeking podcast publishers have to deal with. “[Creating The 11th] had a ton to do with the current limited-run-series model, which seems… well, kinda limited,” Max Linsky, Pineapple’s co-founder, told me. “The economics on anything less than a six-to-eight-episode series just don’t work right now.” This state of affairs, he suspects, has resulted in more than a few serialized narrative podcasts being stretched out longer than they should be. “I think you’re starting to hear shows that feel a little fat, because they’re getting stretched to that length to make the math work,” Linsky said.
A constant refrain from the team is that, with The 11th, stories will only be as long as they need to be, and their focus is to help artists tell their stories in the most supportive way possible. “A lot of creators don’t have the capacity or financial backing to produce an eight-episode series,” said Jenelle Pifer, another team member on The 11th. “We’re leaning into this idea that we’re more aligned with the creator’s vision.” A veteran of The Moth’s production team, Pifer also spoke about a hope to form a tribe around the show. “I would really love to see it become this real community of creative people contributing to this like a common space,” she said.
Collaborators are paid a set fee, and they will own a split of the derivative rights for their project. The podcast will be monetized, seemingly by the classic ad-driven engine, and it’s likely we’ll see some experimentation on this front as well. “By changing the format month to month, I think we can often change the style of ads, too,” said Linsky. “I think The 11th will also be a place where we can potentially try other revenue models, but we won’t license it — the show will be available everywhere.”
This is probably an appropriate point in this column to note a broader point of context. The 11th isn’t quite alone in its pursuits to experiment with different forms and structures within a consolidated show architecture. Radiotopia’s Showcase, recently rebranded as Radiotopia Presents, follows almost the same logic, using the same feed and show branding to distribute differently shaped projects from different collaborators. Gimlet’s Crime Show seems to be mounting a similar project, but contained within the subject area of true crime (and its discontents).
Beyond overtly anthological productions, you could also argue that certain franchise-sized podcasts occasionally open up their feed to differently shaped miniseries in accordance to similar creative pursuits: Think of how The New York Times’ Odessa (four parts) and Day X (five parts) are published both as standalone feeds and through The Daily’s juggernaut feed, a dual-pronged distribution approach that undoubtedly de-risks any sell-side uncertainties with creative experiments.
It’s also worth noting that Pineapple’s thinking around The 11th is premised within a specific for-profit framework, which is to say: What the team is trying to work through with this project is the tension between creative experimentation and the needs of a traditional ad-supported business model. There is a decent number of podcasts out there — typically smaller, independent, and operating outside of the pure advertising-driven structure, maybe Patreon driven but not always — that routinely experiment with form, style, and aesthetics. The fiction scratchpad Imaginary Advice comes to mind, among others, and if you’ll allow me an esoteric example, the indie video-game podcast Into the Aether once put out an almost nine-hour long episode, which I hear remains the show’s most downloaded episode and which, frankly, totally works within the bounds of what that show’s creators were trying to do with that installment.
Of course, part of The 11th’s intent here is to cultivate a space that guarantees financial support for the creative experiments, and that, to me, stands as perhaps the most interesting differentiator here that renders the project an intriguing touch point in this growing experimental impulse on the part of certain podcast producers, one that embodies the community’s ongoing efforts to balance industrial and creative needs. I’m eager to see what this team ultimately makes and how far they’ll take this concept of breaking the rules.
Oh, they’re also seeking contributors for future projects, so if you’re interested, go here.
In My Feelings: Vermont Ave.’s Use of Binaural Audio
A man walks along a busy Los Angeles avenue, stuck in his head. Cars zip by, the collective drone monotonous yet occasionally intrusive. You get the sense it’s the evening, the sunset caking the streets with soft gold. The man, whose name is John, tries listening to a song. It doesn’t seem to satisfy him. He switches to a podcast. No dice. Back to music, another track. In a few moments, he’ll bump into a friend. They’ll briefly catch up. He won’t tell her what’s really on his mind. Nor, for that matter, will he tell you.
Not much literally happens in Vermont Ave, a short naturalistic audio piece by James Kim (who created 2019’s Moonface) and Brooke Iskra that won the Tribeca Podcast Award for Best Fiction last week. But the piece is rich in portent, offering a brief portrait of someone in the middle of a big personal decision. You, the listener, are placed in John’s perspective, though not completely. His thoughts are never directly communicated, whether by contrived narration or interior monologue. There are, however, some clues — through context cues, you discern that John’s concerns are related to his partner, and through the catch-up conversation, you learn that there is the possibility of a long-distance move involved — but the specifics of his situation remain largely unknown to the audience. Still, there’s empathy to be mined from that feeling of proximity. You might not fully know what’s going on with this guy, but you can connect nonetheless.
The whittling of the line between the listener and the protagonist’s interiority is the central mechanic of the piece, one that Kim and Iskra sought to realize by leaning hard on binaural recording. (Specifically, they used the Sennheiser AMBEO Smart Headset.) Binaural audio has been a technology of interest to radio and podcast producers going back many years, though it experienced a renewed pop in headlines in recent months as certain corporate podcast entities sought to project a sheen of innovation around their creative endeavors. For those unclear, “binaural audio” refers to a process of recording and delivering audio in such a manner that different ears are served different sounds, with the general purpose of conjuring a three-dimensional audio experience. A basic example to illustrate: A binaural recording is one where the listener can sense the movement if, say, a performer is portrayed to walk from the left side to the right side of the listener’s head. It’s my understanding that usage of the recording technology still isn’t particularly widespread across most media forms, and in the podcast world, I’ve mostly encountered binaural audio as part of efforts to inject more sensorial sizzle into genre fiction fare.
With Vermont Ave, though, the use of binaural audio is less the sizzle, more the steak. Which is to say, the intent to collapse the distance between the protagonist and the listener is the piece’s fundamental creative premise, as opposed to a device that enhances a narrative that could function without it.
“We wanted to focus on a moment when something really difficult is happening in your mind,” Kim told me when we spoke over the phone last week, shortly after the Tribeca Festival announced the short’s win. “What does that feel like? What does that sound like? Can you capture that without using any words, just using sounds to get those emotions and feelings across?”
Kim told me that the short was, for the creators, an emotional purge of sorts. “Everything was going pretty bad around the time we were making that,” he said. “Brooke and I were in a similar situation… we were creatively and professionally not in a good space, and personally, we were going through a lot of stuff.” In the manner of many creative types, they decided to collaborate on the project, because making stuff was the only thing they felt would make them happy at that moment.
They staged the piece as if it were a short film. Kim and Iskra played the principal roles (with the producer Elyssa Dudley doing the voiceover for the podcast played briefly along with John’s walk), and the process involved scoping the location, blocking out the scene, timing the moment that the characters would encounter each other.
The actual recording was fairly straightforward. In his role as the protagonist, Kim wore the headsets, which look like slightly fancier headphones, that were connected to his phone’s voice memo app. The microphones sit on the outside of each headset, and when worn by the performer, the recording set-up mimics the conventional way in which sound flows into both ears, generating audio tracks that can then be layered on top of each other in the mix to produce the three-dimensional effect. It also creates an experience that centers the perspective of the person wearing the recording equipment. When someone in the vicinity of the wearer speaks, you can hear that spatial distance between the protagonist and other characters in the scene.
Vermont Ave falls from Kim and Iskra’s broader intent of producing more fiction pieces in the real world. “I’ve always wanted to try new ways to get out of the studio,” said Kim. “I’m hopeful that this tech can normalize recording [fiction] outside of the studio, where you can really use the environment as a character.”
He also believes in the technology’s potential for nonfiction production, and how it could help producers interact more deeply with the immediate situation. “You often find yourself in a situation where you’ve taken a subject to a place where something happened, and you’re standing there asking that person to recount a story, and then you do the back and forth with the microphone thing… it could be really interesting, maybe, to just have them wear one of these headsets, and guide them to different locations,” he said.
But that’s pie-in-the-sky stuff. When asked about what immediately comes next for him, Kim noted that he’s been working on a few fiction and documentary projects contemporaneously, before emphasizing that there’s a bigger aspiration in place for Vermont Ave. He said that they treated the short as a scene from a much larger project, which he describes as a fiction anthology show built around the theme of love. Each season would be based in a different city, drawing contributors from that community. “The whole idea with this project is that, one, to tell more fiction stories that are short form and can be all encompassing in just twenty minutes, and two, to introduce all these people who are interested in making audio fiction to have an outlet,” he described.
That second piece is particularly important to Kim. “This is a really exciting time in fiction,” he said. “A lot of people are seeing the potential, but there’s also a lot of money and writers from Hollywood coming in, and I’m like, wait, wait, there are a bunch of audio creators here, too, who care about the medium. They just think it’s too daunting now, and there’s no outlet for them to express themselves.”
The hope, then, is to provide a platform that could help native audio producers do just that. There’s no timeline in place for that just yet, though, as they’re currently seeking support and distribution for the project. Kim hopes that they’ll be able to get something going by the end of the year. I hope they do, too.
You can listen to Vermont Ave here.
Spotify officially rolls out Green Room, its take on the live social audio category. The formal rebrand comes a few months after the Swedish platform acquired Betty Labs, which operated a sports-centric Clubhouse competitor called Locker Room.
The rollout includes a whole new look for Green Room — which still exists as a separate standalone app, though I’m guessing it will be absorbed into the main Spotify platform at some point in the future — as well as an expanded presence on both iOS and Android in over 135 markets globally.
Spotify also had another smaller announcement last week: The company has acquired the horrifically named Podz, a startup that’s seemingly premised on using machine learning to create podcast-preview clips that listeners could use for the purposes of better discovery. A relatively quiet acqui-hire, it seems.
Meanwhile, Facebook launched its own take on Clubhouse, plus its podcast product, yesterday. You know, because these are apparently the most innovative tech companies in the world.
Facebook is officially rolling out these products with the launch of Live Audio Rooms in the U.S. on iOS, starting with public figures and select Facebook Groups…
… Alongside the launch of Live Audio Rooms, Facebook is also beginning to roll out its planned podcast support with a few select creators. These include Joe Budden of The Joe Budden Podcast; “Jess Hilarious” of Carefully Reckless from The Black Effect Podcast Network and iHeartRadio; Keltie Knight, Becca Tobin and Jac Vanek of The LadyGang; and Nicaila Matthews Okome of Side Hustle Pro. Facebook will open up to other podcasters this summer.
When it comes to the podcast stuff, the best way to think about this is as a distribution play: When opened to all, podcasts would supposedly flow more freely over Facebook, while Facebook gets the engagement from those interactions in return, with which it can continue to make more money, etc etc. The theoretical upside is that podcast creators can possibly find, reach, and convert new audiences over the platform. The downside, of course, is that it’s Facebook. Media companies and publishers of many industries have lived through several cycles of hell when it comes to Facebook, and it’s up to you whether you believe that this cycle might be different.
One last social audio note… Speaking of Clubhouse, you might’ve noticed that the social audio app — which seems to be finding most of its new momentum outside of the United States — has been periodically switching out its app icon, featuring a different person with each change. The team over there seems to be leaning harder into the idea of using these icons as a magazine cover of sorts. Over the weekend, Clubhouse executed a press push around the announcement of its latest icon figure: Dandara Pagu, a Brazilian user who’s also an activist and a producer. A curious marketing campaign, though I do find the idea of app-icon-as-creative-real-estate somewhat intriguing.
SmartLess seeks $20-million-per-year deal, according to Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw. And they’re apparently finding at least some interested suitors, including Amazon. Spotify is said to have looked at the prospect and passed.
Worth noting: Shaw points out that the $20-million-per-year number pushed by CAA, which reps Smartless, is likely pulled from the Call Her Daddy deal that Spotify closed last week. Looks like some leading and following happening in the deal market here, and that tends to not bode super well for the followers.
Sony Music Entertainment has acquired Somethin’ Else, the decades-old UK audio studio. This doesn’t come out of nowhere, as SME had previously invested in a joint venture with the studio in February 2020. With this development, Somethin’ Else’s execs Steve Ackerman and Jez Nelson will “jointly spearhead SME’s global podcast content and business development strategy,” according to the press release. SME’s pod exec team just got even more white, even more dude.
Hey, Floodlines won a Peabody Award. Very well deserved.
Audio and the Queering of Gender, Part One
By Aria Bracci
When I heard the radio presenter and producer Steffi Barnett say in a recent Radio Academy webinar that she had been misgendered by a listener, the conversation seemed to change shape. Other guests on the panel, which was about LGBTQ+ experiences in the audio industry, discussed responses they’ve gotten to mentioning their sexual orientation on air, or how colleagues have treated them in the workplace, and while all vital components to discuss, this anecdote from Barnett, who is transgender, was speaking less to the audio industry than to the medium at the center of it. Learning of her experience, one was forced to ask: Is audio just a fundamentally murky landscape for accurately perceiving gender?
A producer or host can’t account for what any piece of audio will sound like to listeners. Sound engages only one of five senses, with each listener’s brain generally being made to fill in the remaining holes. You can’t truly know how an audience will interpret anything you create, just as you can’t predict how an audience will respond to a likeness of you, but audio is a medium that captures voices in isolation, stripping away any other identifiers of a person and throwing their words against the stark backdrop of blank space. In 2015, the audio producer and academic Chenjerai Kumanyika recounted that he’d caught himself speaking like various well-known radio personalities while narrating a segment he’d reported, instinctually code-switching to assimilate to the existing sound of public radio, which happened to be pretty white. In pointing out how a recording could both highlight and allow him to obscure his Blackness, Kumanyika addressed audio’s relationship with race. Barnett made me think about its implications for gender.
Gender is, of course, complex, describing behaviors and feelings and other messy things that vary from person to person and change over time. While people do not choose their gender, they do have some say over how they express it, and for a given person, the manifestation of gender might comprise voice, looks, and wardrobe. But when you can’t see someone, the curated, personal phenomenon that is gender can become ripe for misinterpretation, since the things that can signal it to an observer are limited to pitch, timbre, and accent — and as Barnett’s anecdote showed, they might not signal it correctly.
Let’s get one thing clear: You couldn’t tell someone’s gender even if you could see them. A few years back, one particularly invasive usage of facial-recognition technology in Norway attempted to sort people by gender on sight, which is not only rife with flaws considering the astronomically high number of people who I can only assume do not fit the model of squarer jaw = man, but incredibly invasive and just kind of stupid, serving meat-based ads to “men” while the “women” got salads. (I’m using quotes here because this algorithm claimed to be detecting gender, but it was really just scrounging for biological sex. And even if a squarer jaw did = testosterone, testosterone =/= penis, penis =/= man, etc.) Surprisingly, Wikihow offers a decent counter to the fallacy of gender-detecting shortcuts, especially because one article in particular — “How to Find Out a Person’s Gender” — makes it sound like it’ll tell you to look at the height of a person and make assumptions from there. In reality, it advises you to confirm, when relevant, which pronouns you should use and to otherwise mind your damn business.
Every day, people dress, walk, and hold themselves in ways that they feel align with their identities, including their genders, and this inherently involves things you can see. What felt tragic, upon hearing Barnett’s experience, was the reality that the vacuum of audio appeared to force listeners into using those same gender-assuming shortcuts, since there are no visuals to complicate what you hear, and what you hear generally shakes out into an anatomy-based binary: The sound of someone’s voice is determined by things like the size of their vocal cords, and over time we’ve come to associate lower voices with people with thicker vocal cords who are taller on average and higher voices with people with thinner vocal cords who are shorter on average. People with these specs are often referred to in shorthand as “men” and “women,” respectively, even though the experience of being a man or woman has absolutely nothing to do with things that can be measured with a ruler. Yet, such shorthand prevails, which is a problem, of course, considering that not everyone’s gender aligns with the bodies they were endowed.
Voices can be red herrings to a stranger, and as personal as gender can feel, strangers do really play a big part in it. Gender is shaped by feedback from and relationships with other people; even the World Health Organization calls it “socially constructed.” That said, the gender that a listener assumes they’re hearing in a voice not only influences how they respond to it (e.g., folks other than cisgender men are more likely to experience stigma and violence) but how the speaker feels when that happens. Barnett began transitioning in 2003 and has, to her knowledge, never explicitly identified as trans in some of the on-air roles she holds, and the listener who misgendered her approached her at an in-person event after realizing who she was. “Steff, I listen to your show every week and love it,” the listener allegedly said, “but I thought you were a bloke — I didn’t know you were female” (adding “your voice is quite deep, innit?”). Barnett says she wasn’t upset by the encounter, though a scenario like this one, as with all scenarios that have to do with identity, plays out differently person to person.
Regardless of its outcome, that interaction seems to illustrate how, whether because of instinctual reactions or prevailing transphobic sentiment, the assumptions people make when they hear someone’s voice may have much more to do with sex than with gender, leaving little wiggle room, in the silo of sound, for transgender identities to be taken as they are. Voice can be experienced so simply as to confine a speaker to a box, and this rigidity, says, Socks Whitmore, a multidisciplinary performer, composer, and storyteller who does voiceover work, could even lead transgender peers in the industry to not medically transition.
If a voice actor introduces testosterone to their body, for example, their voice will likely deepen, and, as such, says Whitmore, “they start their work over, basically because the roles they were booking before, they can’t do anymore.” And even pursuing replacement roles could lead to a dead end: The train of thought, Whitmore postulates, might be that “now my reel is worth nothing, and my resume makes no sense,” since, while past work exists, it demonstrates mastery of a voice that itself no longer exists, and updated examples haven’t yet been possible to make.
Whitmore, who is agender, says they haven’t themselves taken testosterone because they don’t experience dysphoria between their identity and their voice, which is relatively high pitched. But it’s also true, they add, that their voice “is too important to my work to change.” Of course, this is just one stance, and while simply by existing it reflects a problem that audio presents for non-cisgender actors, it’s almost certainly not a problem all non-cisgender actors experience.
Indeed, even when such problems are present, audio also presents opportunities. Particularly for folks who are non-binary, agender, or transgender, not having to “match” one’s voice to one’s body — by, in this case, temporarily not having a body at all — can bring a form of relief. It permits experimenting with how they think of themselves, to realize the roles they can play when they aren’t limited by how well they supposedly embody them physically. One might even expand their understanding of themselves by playing a gender that’s outside their own, something that, for a given individual, might only feel possible from the safety of a recording booth.
The intersection of audio and gender is looking much brighter than it’s looking dark, actually. But that’s for my column next week, so stay tuned.