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What’s Next for Pocket Casts?

Photo: Pocket Casts

This article first ran in Hot Pod, an industry-leading trade newsletter about podcasting by Nick Quah.

Some news, in case you missed it: Pocket Casts acquired by Automattic, parent company of Wordpress. The move was announced early Friday, with Automattic stating that the co-founders of the popular podcast app, Russell Ivanovic and Philip Simpson, will continue to lead the product after the change in ownership.

The terms of the deal were not made public. A spokesperson for Automattic noted that the company had no additional details to share beyond what’s mentioned in the official blog post on the matter, and a message by Ivanovic and Simpson sent out to its user base yesterday morning stated that they expect to share more details on what this transition for the app means over the coming weeks, and that they don’t expect users to notice any immediate changes to Pocket Casts for now.

That we’re seeing a change in ownership for Pocket Casts shouldn’t come as a surprise. Originally created about a decade ago when Ivanovic and Simpson were operating as the independent Australian mobile development firm Shifty Jelly, the app was eventually acquired by a consortium of public-radio organizations in the summer of 2018. The original participants of the consortium were NPR, WNYC Studios, Chicago Public Media, and This American Life, with BBC Studios Americas stepping in last March as a new investor. Despite strong initial optimism and a stated emphasis on experimentation — “We want to help make podcast discovery a better experience for listeners and its delivery and distribution more valuable to podcast creators,” Thomas Hjelm, then holding the role as NPR’s Chief Digital Officer, told me at the time — it never ended up being entirely clear what the consortium strategically had in mind with the app, which, in my understanding, continued to enjoy a strong following. In January, Current’s Tyler Falk reported that, less than a year after raising additional funds from BBC Studio Americas, the consortium agreed to sell off Pocket Casts to a new buyer. He also reported that the group was losing money on the app, drawing from NPR’s financial statement for the 2020 fiscal year to find that the public radio mothership had lost $800,000 on the app during that time period.

Pocket Casts now has a new home in Automattic, best known as the parent company behind the ubiquitous WordPress website-publishing platform. The company is also distinct for having made a string of somewhat quirky acquisitions of late: the once mighty Tumblrthe publishing platform (and digital magazine) Atavistthe journaling app Day One, and the content-analytics company (Which, to be fair, is a much less quirky acquisition for a company dealing in content-management systems.) The Pocket Casts purchase isn’t Automattic’s first foray into audio in recent memory; back in January, had announced a partnership with Anchor that revolves around converting WordPress blogs into text-to-speech audio experiences that can be published through the Spotify-owned platform.

Speaking as a devoted user of the app, I’m crossing my fingers that Automattic will be a good home for Pocket Casts over the long term. Plus, given the continued brokenness of Apple Podcasts, any development that’s able to maintain, preserve, and strengthen alternatives to Spotify has never been more important.

One last thing. I think I’ve written about this before, but I believe we’re now deep into an era of podcasting where it’s highly unlikely third-party podcast apps can thrive — not independently, not without support of a much bigger platform, not without a strong pre-existing identity, community, or cult of personality behind it. There may still be some room to carve out defined niches, but I don’t know, even that prospect feels increasingly thin. A podcast app is fundamentally a gambit on infrastructure, and the pipes seem all tied up today.

Now, it’s easy for me — an external observer, analyst, columnist, is there anything more wretched than an armchair expert? — to say this, but I can’t help feeling that the whole consortium-owned Pocket Casts situation was such a missed opportunity for the intersection of public media and podcasting. Mark Coatney, a former director of Tumblr, once advocated for the idea of a PBS for social media, and here there had been a clear launchpad to do something of the sort in audio. To build, perhaps, truly public podcast infrastructure, a sub-ecosystem that could stand independent from and complementary to the for-profit world. The ghost has now been given up, and today, NPR is building the “next chapter” of its podcast business on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Speaking of which…

James Boggs Is Leaving Apple Podcasts

Longtime podcast operators should be familiar with Boggs, who served as the World Wide Manager for Apple Podcasts between 2010 and 2020 — which is to say, through this most recent boom. He had transitioned into a new role within the team, Head of Editorial, at the start of last year, and is now departing Apple entirely after 17 years at the company. (17 years at the same place! I can’t personally fathom it.) It’s my understanding that he’s due for a long break, after which he’ll set off to start something new.

This is the second notable Apple-Podcasts-related personnel exit in recent weeks, after head of content N’Jeri Eaton’s departure at the beginning of this month. Eaton would eventually be named Head of Audio at Netflix.

Gastropod Strikes Long-term Partnership with Eater and the Vox Media Podcast Network

The partnership will see VMPN take over duties on sales, marketing, and distribution for the long-running food podcast hosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, which will remain independently owned. The deal will also see the two parties exploring possible future editorial collaborations.

The new arrangement will kick off with Gastropod’s August 3 episode.

Little Morning Shows Everywhere

Spotify appears to be building a daily production based in Nashville, Tennessee, according to this job listing. Here’s the key part of the description:

We’re assembling a team in Nashville to work together every weekday morning to create show segments related to news, talk of the day, music, and the latest in the country music scene.

This is an intriguing development in and of itself, but the intrigue is compounded by the fact that this isn’t the first such rumbling of Spotify looking to build weekday-morning-oriented productions in recent months. Though the listing is no longer active, there had been another similarly structured job posting back in March, this one pegged to Los Angeles and with the following description:

This is an intriguing development in and of itself, but the intrigue is compounded by the fact that this isn’t the first such rumbling of Spotify looking to build weekday-morning-oriented productions in recent months. Though the listing is no longer active, there had been another similarly structured job posting back in March, this one pegged to Los Angeles and with the following description:

This is an intriguing development in and of itself, but the intrigue is compounded by the fact that this isn’t the first such rumbling of Spotify looking to build weekday-morning-oriented productions in recent months. Though the listing is no longer active, there had been another similarly structured job posting back in March, this one pegged to Los Angeles and with the following description:

Spotify is launching a new daily show based in Los Angeles, publishing on weekday afternoons. This show will mix music and talk segments, in a modern take on afternoon drivetime radio. We are assembling a new production team to develop and launch a show that focuses on music, news of the day, and pop culture. This production will work under the direction of Gimlet’s New Formats team.

When contacted about the Nashville posting, a Spotify spokesperson stated they did not have anything more to share at this time.

Selected Notes

➽ Mat George, co-host of the popular She Rates Dogs podcast, was killed in a hit-and-run over the weekend. Here’s the Los Angeles Times write-up.

➽ The Biden administration has transferred its first detainee from Guantánamo Bay: Abdul Latif Nasser, the subject of Radiolab’s miniseries, “The Other Latif.” Here’s the New York Times write-up.

➽ APM’s Marketplace and Cumulus Radio are now offering Marketplace Minute, their podcast collaboration consisting of 60-second long episodes that was launched last year, to public radio stations. This is interesting to me: a spokesperson told me that this marks “the first time that a commercial radio company, Cumulus Media’s Westwood One, and a public media organization, like APM’s Marketplace, have teamed up to bring a product to market across public and commercial radio.” Hmm.

From Axios: “The Daily Wire debuts morning podcast to compete with ‘The Daily.’” Sure, guy.

➽ Edison Research rolled out its second annual Latino Podcast Listener report last week.

➽ Clubhouse has launched a direct-messaging feature, calling it Backchannel.

➽ I have a lot of thoughts on the ongoing discussion around the use of AI-facilitated voice reconstruction in Road Runner, Morgan Neville’s documentary about Anthony Bourdain that came out this weekend, but I’ll keep those to myself. Here, instead, I’ll just note that it’s a subject audio documentarians should pay rather close attention to, for obvious reasons. On this particular flashpoint, beginand end, with The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner.

The Growing Podcast Consulting Scene

By Skye Pillsbury

In 2011, Jeremy Helton, then a freelance audio producer, hired an accountant to help him file his taxes. “I think one of the first things he said to me was, ‘I don’t understand how you’ve survived; you’ve made so little money!’” he told me earlier this month.

To be fair, this didn’t come as a total shock. Over the years, producing audio for StoryCorps and forming an audio collective had brought Helton fulfillment and recognition, but little money. “After that appointment with the accountant, I decided that, while I loved spoken-word audio, I needed to find work that was a little more financially stable.”

After reaching out to his old employer, StoryCorps, and offering to do “any job that people didn’t want, literally the most tedious and egregious work possible,” he landed a six-month contract to organize a launch event for one of StoryCorps’s oral-history initiatives. Later that year, he joined the organization’s marketing team full time.

While Helton emphasized that he made the transition towards a marketing role for financial reasons, he insists that even at that early stage, he felt invigorated by the challenge. He was good at the work and, crucially, he enjoyed it. “It didn’t feel like I was having to sell my soul and do marketing when I’d rather be making a radio show,” said Helton. “It felt like a good change; I was excited about it.”

His success at StoryCorps led to a VP of marketing position at Audioboom, and in 2018, he made the decision to start his own podcast-marketing consultancy. “I had a hunch that there was a need for that kind of service,” said Helton. “But rather than just go on my gut, I asked people like Ben Riskin, Dane Cardiel, Nate Tobey, Rachael King and Sarah Geis” — some of his peers — “if they thought there was a pain point in the industry that services like mine could alleviate. I got a lot of insights and confirmation from those chats, and that gave me the confidence to get started.”

The consulting business took off pretty quickly. When he launched his consultancy in 2018, he had just two clients. This year, he’s worked with nearly 30 — and that’s just since January. (In June, Helton accepted an in-house position as Ten Percent Happier’s Director of Podcast Marketing, though he continues to run his consulting business on the side.) This volume of demand may sound high, but it squares with what I’ve been hearing from other people working as podcast consultants in the industry: There’s more work than they can handle, and they need help.

“We’re all stressed out because there aren’t very many of us doing this,” said Lauren Passell, who runs independent marketing-and-PR company Tink Media. “Somebody asked me about competition once, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, no. I need someone to come in and steal my clients. Like, go ahead!’”

The outsized level of demand has even translated into some burnout. Marketer Cindy Okereke told me that during acute moments of overload, connecting with fellow consultants on Zooms or Slack channels has helped keep her sane. During informal meetups, the group shares referrals, brainstorms ideas for clients, and lets off steam. “We’ll be like, ‘I’m so tired. I’m exhausted. I haven’t had a vacation since I opened this thing.’” In June, Okereke closed her independent marketing consultancy to accept a position with former client Strong Black Lead, a Netflix production, as its manager of editorial and publishing. She continues to work as a consulting producer for Therapy for Black Girls, another former client.

I’d like to take a beat here to acknowledge that there’s a bit of stigma around the term “podcast consultant,” historically speaking. For many, the term conjures up the image of unsolicited emails from a supposed podcast expert promising to “double your downloads in two weeks” or “get your show punching above its weight on the Apple charts.” These dubious proposals have become so ubiquitous that some have lampooned the strategy, while others have dug into how these services actually work. Against that context, I felt compelled to ask this seemingly new generation of podcast consultants how possible clients should distinguish between these two types.

“Any podcaster who gets a direct message out of the blue with promises of 100,000 downloads in a week should proceed with caution, if at all,” said Helton, who told me he never guarantees download numbers. Rather, he stressed that he customizes a plan for each client, which is based on their specific resources, content, and time constraints. “I don’t think there’s a ‘one size fits all’ marketing plan for podcasts,” he added.

Helton also warned that getting cold outreach can be a red flag in and of itself. At this point, the vast majority of his clients come to him as a result of personal recommendations from trusted friends.

Across the board, the podcast consultants I spoke with say they endeavor to deliver a high level of service: heavy on personal attention, light on outlandish promises. This approach appears to be working, as most are able to charge a premium for their work and pull in six figures per year. (Given my past experience as a publicist and marketer in a high-growth sector, I would imagine the financial upside for people who specialize in audio marketing will go up and up… and up.)

So, who is qualified to do this work? Helton recalled that his background and experience in audio helped him land clients, right out of the gate. As a former producer, he had developed a network of trusted contacts in a business often driven by word-of-mouth recommendations. He also understood the work that went into production, which gave him added credibility.

Similarly, industry veteran Rekha Murthy told me that the experience and Rolodex she gained from years “in the trenches with production” at NPR and later, in a series of director-level roles at PRX, gave her the confidence to know that it wouldn’t be hard to find independent work. Today, her clients include podcasts from Critical Frequency, WBUR in Boston, American Public Media, and many others. She’s also the lead curriculum designer for the Spotify Sound Up podcast training and is considered a founding member of its team, despite technically employed as a contractor. (When I asked why she didn’t stay the production course at NPR, she said, “I felt respected, but there just weren’t enough opportunities for people who were early in their career to advance. I wanted variety and opportunity.”)

On the other hand, Okereke, an English and creative writing major who started her career in book publishing PR, is proof that there’s room in audio marketing for people who bring experience from an entirely different field. “I didn’t come through traditional channels, but I can craft a story, identify themes, and build out an editorial calendar.” Her love of writing and storytelling is also an asset.

“This industry is still finding itself,” she continued. “There are a lot of creative ways to work in audio.”

Towards the end of working on this piece, I checked back in with Helton and asked him to reflect back on the earlier stretches of his audio career, when his professional life was a lot less stable and gainful than it is now. Does he have any regrets? “Luckily for me, finding stability didn’t require that I leave audio,” he said. “It just meant embracing a different role.”

Notes on Skills-Gap Anxiety

By Aria Bracci

Here’s a tidbit I learned a few years ago: Audie Cornish and I went to the same college. This was striking to me, given that the college in question doesn’t have an audio program, or even a sub-concentration within journalism or communications. I haven’t actually met Cornish, nor did I interview her for this piece, but from what I’ve learned about her trajectory, I felt a sort of kinship in how we both found our way into the medium of audio all the same, especially the particular way it appears to have happened: largely outside the classroom, bumping up against people and extracurriculars that helped us figure it out.

If it weren’t for certain chance encounters (in my case, through an internship that my NPR-loving landlord persuaded me to pursue at our local public-radio station, and in Cornish’s, through student radio, according to this college alumni video), it might not have been possible to know that producing podcasts and radio stories as a profession was an option, let alone possible to figure out how to do it. This may very well have been true for other people who came up around the same time or earlier; after all, it was only recently that the audio job market became as robust as it is today. There has been plenty of educational instruction for more fundamental skills like asking questions and fact checking — skills, by the way, that could also apply to non-journalism jobs — but when it came to formally learning the technical ins and outs of audio production, there were just fewer opportunities.

It should come as no surprise for you to know, then, that when I was offered my first full-time audio production position a year after graduating, I felt really underqualified. Six days before starting the job, which I’d so badly wanted and couldn’t believe I’d secured, I dialed in to a mentorship call I’d signed up for through Digital Women Leaders, hoping that the person on the other end would just sprinkle me with all the skills I felt I didn’t have. That person was Rachel Rohr, the director of training and service for Report for America, and when the two of us chatted, I took a ton of notes. But I suppose I might’ve been equally fine if I hadn’t, because, to this day, what stands out about our conversation was her insistence that, since I could tell stories, I already knew what I was doing. And thank goodness, because that was about the only thing I was sure I knew how to do.

This sentiment — that you could produce reasonably good audio, even if your technical training was largely DIY — is one that I truly hope becomes more ingrained in this community. The industry has grown a lot in the four years since I graduated, but it will likely take time for the institutions that spit us out into that industry to catch up. I have a feeling there are still lots of people like me out there. So, as an exercise for both myself and them, I wanted to get this down in writing, and a few weeks ago, I called Rohr back.

When the two of us first spoke, back in 2018, I’d already been researching and writing for several years, just as Rohr had been when she pursued, and got hired for, her own first job in the audio industry. Rohr joined WBUR in Boston in the late aughts as a young print journalist in the midst of a recession who looked at her professional prospects and vowed to be flexible. Though she’d never worked in the medium before, she convinced both herself and her eventual bosses that, even as a relatively green writer, she already had the nuts and bolts in place to tackle this different but related medium. And not only did they believe her, she was right: She’d already honed the ability to identify and tell stories, which was more or less at the core of audio reporting, too. Hence the kernel she passed along to me.

“I applied with not very high hopes that I would be hired,” says Rohr. But after Googling the differences between print and audio reporting — and blurting out her findings to her interviewers in response to them asking her what made her think she could do this — she figured, “I did have the skills that they were looking for, and they were willing to train on the editing and the software.”

Almost a decade later, Rohr urged me to have confidence in how my own reporting and writing skills had prepared me to tell a story in a new medium, and while I did have this other fear that the audio-engineering experience I could claim, however rudimentary, would give my new coworkers the impression that I could handle all the technical stuff, Rohr’s experience still mapped onto mine: When I did need help with equipment or programs, people stepped in.

It also turned out that, even as I was exposed to work with more complicated sound design or that brought in high-profile guests and actors (and also began to produce more complex work myself), Rohr’s advice about the centrality of a story still rang true to me. Good production or a big budget couldn’t hide a boring or messy subject.

In the three years since I spoke with Rohr — and evidently in the nearly two decades since she learned this firsthand — the idea of storytelling being the most fundamental element in a production has been the throughline for me. It has shined a light on all the planning and thought that goes on behind the scenes of audio, it makes me grateful for the reporting techniques I did gain in college (or otherwise scrambled to acquire on the job), and, importantly, it transcends genre.

“I’m using ‘story’ as a proxy for continuing to be engaged, that it’s moving me along,” says Rohr, who’s quick to anticipate questions that arise when she shares opinions on this topic. “In fact, most of what I listen to is not really narrative.”

As an example, chatcasts that hook you and keep you listening are likely doing so because of something other than cool music or an expensive microphone, even though, Rohr says, those are the kinds of elements many early-career audio makers fixate on and worry they won’t know how to use. Behind a great chatcast is likely the dynamic, give-and-take energy between hosts, or perhaps a producer with a solid vision of where a conversation started and where it should lead. Either element, within the framework of her advice, could be considered the “story.”

Rohr, of course, doesn’t want anyone to walk away from a conversation with her thinking that all the other steps of making audio aren’t important. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, in her mind. Things like leveling volume and composing original music take so much craft and care that, frankly, it’d be a waste to expend them on content that isn’t pulling its weight.

“The story is going to make or break it. You can’t sound design your way out of an uncompelling story,” says Rohr. “I would consider that almost like polishing a turd — which is not a phrase I invented but that I enjoy saying.”

At the end of the day, Rohr wants people to first have their basic storytelling skills in order, which may or may not already exist from previous work experience. After that, there are so many more things one can learn. “It’s a whole lifetime ahead of you of getting better at the craft,” says Rohr.

I, for one, am always seeing ways that I’m getting better, and it certainly hasn’t hurt to remember that I not only had some foundation for the world I eventually entered, but that I’d sharpened the same core skills as the one Audie Cornish eventually came to use on All Things Considered, and within those same hallowed halls.

What’s Next for Pocket Casts?