Last week, the New York Times officially rolled out its stand-alone audio app, which had been gestating in development for a good long while. So long, in fact, I’d forgotten the beta was still on my phone. (I was in the beta testing pool?) In any case, it’s here now, available for use by existing paid New York Times subscribers, and the final product is something that can be a little hard to immediately wrap your head around.
First things first, though — it’s not a podcast app. At least, so goes the messaging. The announcement page regards it as a “front page” for the expanding New York Times Audio universe, while a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show opened with a plug that underlined the intended differentiation. “What I understood them to be working was a podcast, and I thought to myself, Who needs another podcast app?” said Klein. “Then they gave the new app as a beta tester, and I realized that I was wrong about what they were building. At least, partly wrong. What they actually built is something nobody has created yet, which is a portal to the world of audio journalism.”
Specifically, it’s a portal to the New York Times’ own vision of audio journalism. That actually covers quite a bit of ground, as the Gray Lady has built out a sizable audio footprint over the years through both in-house development and acquisitions. In addition to The Daily and all the other original programming from the News Audio and Opinion Audio teams (which is already a lot), the roster also includes shows from acquired divisions like the Athletic and Serial Productions; episodes of This American Life, with which the Times has a marketing relationship as part of the Serial Productions deal; and professionally narrated written works as facilitated by the purchase of Audm. That narrated-article feature extends beyond the Times’ own material, as the offering also covers a curated selection of articles from other publications, including New York Magazine.
So it’s a pretty healthy bundle on paper, except for one thing: The vast majority of that content is available elsewhere. On top of that, while the narrated written works are considered unique to the app, one could easily convert them into a roughly equivalent experience using Pocket’s automated text-to-speech feature, if you’re down with that kind of thing (and, speaking from experience, plenty of people really are).
To be sure, there are genuine exclusives on the app. Chief among them is a new daily-news product called The Headlines, presumably meant to either be a brisker and broader-covering alternative to The Daily or an expanded version of the closing “Here’s What Else You Need to Know Today” section that caps off each Daily installment. There’s also Reporter Reads, which is exactly what it sounds like: Each dispatch features a different reporter briefly talking about a piece they wrote, followed by them reading it out loud. (Fun fact: This was exactly the kind of podcast construction that drove the original wave of news podcasts back in the mid-to-late 2000s.) Finally, the exclusive offerings are rounded out by a steadily replenishing stream of short pieces from the “Culture” section that feel like rough cuts of something more complete.
When looking at the app all at once, a basic product question arises: Who is this for? One imagines the answer wraps around the presumed existence of a subsection of the New York Times paid-subscription base who might consider themselves, and behave accordingly, as “Times Audio superfans.” Perhaps they are a Daily head, or an Ezra Klein head, or a Hard Fork head who hasn’t already stretched themselves across the rest of the portfolio and could be productively exposed to other offerings within the context of the app. I’m fairly certain some number of people like this exist, but the obvious follow-up needs to be asked: Just how many are there? More importantly, is it enough to justify the existence of this app?
Maybe it’s just the giant apocalyptic cloud that’s been hovering over the podcast world of late, but I’ll be frank. While interesting in the abstract, I just can’t see a strong case for the app unless you’re some sort of New York Times completist. It’s a fairly heavy burden to reconstruct one’s entire podcast-listening flow, especially if it is to access programming you can easily get elsewhere, and there isn’t much of an “added convenience” argument to the app’s proposition. Furthermore, none of the exclusive content feels particularly fresh, exciting, or essential to compel usage. There’s also a structural weakness with the nature of the exclusive content: It is, as a whole, newsy and ephemeral, thus cutting at the strategic possibility of building cumulative value around those offerings over the long term. I guess I also don’t understand why the app had to be stand-alone, automatically rendering the whole thing as an opt-in experience. Why not bake it into the main app everyone’s already using?
To be fair, I think I can see the intended long-term vision. A strong New York Times Audio app opens up new possibilities. It would further add to the value of the subscription bundle, currently the North Star of the company’s corporate strategy. Getting more users to listen through an owned and operated platform means more user data, which could unlock better capacities around advertising and subscription targeting.
But the path from here to there is long, and as it stands, the app feels muddled, unconvincing, a solution to no clear problem. An assortment of different use cases duct-taped together into a bundle, it lacks a bold vision. More simply, it just needs to pick a lane. Make it a product for extreme Daily heads. Make it about professionally narrated articles from the website. Go full Luminary, pulling everything but a handful of shows behind the wall.
Or here’s an idea: You know what’s not being commissioned very much any more these days as a result of the downturn? Good, smart, well-made limited-run narrative series that isn’t about a cult, murder, scam, or crime. You know what smart, creative, and artistically inclined audio producers like to make, and a good swathe of Times-subscribing listeners like to hear? Good, smart, well-made limited-run narrative series that isn’t about a cult, murder, scam, or crime. That’s a market begging to be revitalized, and a clear use case not being served. I don’t care; just go big. The Times certainly has the cash, the model, and a willing consumer base to do it.
News and Notes
➽ Spotify has apparently been experimenting, or planning to experiment, with developing generative AI tools to scale up its version of podcast advertising. Bill Simmons brought that up in a recent episode of his eponymous podcast, where he discussed the possibility of deploying artificially generated voices to rapidly produce targeted ad-reads (with the host’s consent, in theory). This, of course, raises all sorts of questions: how would this impact the much-vaunted “intimacy” proposition that’s long been baked into how sellers talk about the uniqueness of podcast advertising, how could that affect pricing, what kind of guardrails are in place to prevent misuse, would the ability to provide consent only apply to those with leverage in talent deals, etc.
Anyway, a lot to chew on there, but the larger cloud has always been the question of whether AI can produce substitutable creative works wholesale. On this front, the fine people over at Planet Money will press the point: On May 26, the show will kick off a three-part miniseries where it attempts to create a 15-minute episode fully produced by artificial intelligence — complete with a vocal AI bot that’s been trained on former host Robert Smith’s voice.
➽ Speaking of AI-directed podcasts, the bot governing Dudesy continues to run amok.
➽ Been digging the conceit behind this recommendation from reader Joseph F.: Re: Dracula is an adaptation of the classic Bram Stoker tale that takes the novel’s epistolary structure literally, releasing new episodes in accordance with the actual date listed on the fictional entries. Shout-out to public-domain works.
➽ Speaking of epistolaries, here’s a four-part series by the producer Bianca Giaever that features a love affair, a coyote encounter, magical realism, Terry Tempest Williams, isolation, the difficulty of a belief in God, and a dash of Mandy Patinkin. It’s called Nightwalking, and it’s published through The Believer Magazine’s Constellation Prize podcast.
➽ Checked this one out off the recommendation that came at the end of Search Engine’s preview episode: You’re Welcome With Zoe Nightingale, which describes itself as “a satirical improv comedy show whose goal is to find and share people’s stories from all over the world.” In other words, it’s a raucous, anarchic interview show featuring the comedian and writer in conversation with an array of eccentric individuals: There’s been a juggalo, a cop, a Florida man. It’s very out there, but it’s definitely somethin’. Note, however: New episodes are published very sporadically.