This article first ran in Hot Pod, an industry-leading trade newsletter about podcasting by Nick Quah.
Apple has finally issued a fix, via the iOS 14.7 update, for the Apple Podcasts bug that’s been preventing automatic downloads for new episodes from completing in the background for some users. The bug has resulted in some chaos with download numbers reported on third-party hosting platforms. For those closely watching, the fix comes about a month after Apple first publicly acknowledged the problem.
Two follow-ups. Firstly, Podtrac, the podcast measurement company that publishes periodic public reports on industry-wide audience patterns (as usual, they are to be read with caveats), seems to hold the bug responsible for its recent finding of a consistent downward trend in year-over-year download growth. “June download data was negatively impacted by a bug reported by Apple on their Apple Podcasts for Creators page on July 1, 2021,” the company wrote in its latest blog post, before pointing to a graph displaying a sharp drop in downloads facilitated over Apple Podcasts while downloads facilitated over other platforms stayed comparatively consistent to their previous trajectory.
Podtrac also noted in the post: “Overall, 2021 has been just slightly above or on par with 2020 traffic through May, and June was the first month where 2021 saw less traffic than 2020.”
Secondly, I’m still trying to get a feel for how advertisers — both brand and direct response — are thinking about these reporting issues. I haven’t heard much rumbling on this particular topic over the past month, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and I frankly haven’t comprehensively canvassed the issue just yet. As usual, my inbox is open.
Anyway, if you need further context as to the bigger picture around the bug and its significance, hit my column from a few weeks back.
It’s Spotify Earnings Season
Spotify announced second quarter earnings last week, and the company’s performance on its core metrics were a mixed bag relative to the guidance they had issued going into the day. However, there was one podcast-specific data point that’s been turning some heads: Podcast advertising revenue (as directly generated by Spotify) was said to have grown by a whopping 627% year-over-year.
This data point was not mentioned in the press release, but it was disclosed by CEO Daniel Ek in the earnings call, where he added: “The continued out-performance is currently limited only by the availability of our inventory, which is something we’re actively solving for… The days of our ad business accounting for less than 10% of our total revenue are behind us, and going forward, I expect ads to be a substantial part of our revenue mix.”
Now, 627% growth is an eye-popping stat, but don’t lose the context: The leap comes off a small base number. (A year ago, Spotify’s “streaming ad insertion” push was still in its infancy.) With that mind, it’s more prudent to frame this data point as a historical marker of sorts: The second quarter of 2021 appears to be the period when Spotify finally flipped on the podcast advertising switch. The thing to watch next is what the actual baseline growth rate eventually shakes out to be.
Meanwhile, the company also disclosed that podcast listening among monthly active users grew by 30% year-over-year on a per user basis. Let’s move on.
The New York Times Promotes Paula Szuchman to Director of Audio
It’s a newly created role, and according to the official announcement, it will feature Szuchman overseeing management across the Times’ sprawling audio department. Previously, Szuchman was the lead on the Times’ Opinion Audio team, which she was brought in to build.
Lisa Tobin — who was the Times’ first executive-level hire on the audio front — will continue to lead the News Audio team, while Alison Bruzek, a senior producer on Opinion Audio, will step into an interim leadership role in that team. The search for a new head of Opinion Audio is currently underway. Operations for both News Audio and Opinion Audio will remain separate, mirroring the typical conventions of the broader newsroom, but both will report up to Szuchman in this new structure. Meanwhile, Serial Productions, which the Times acquired last summer, will continue operating on its own under Julie Snyder’s leadership, and will report directly up to Times assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick. It’s my understanding that Serial Productions will not be part of Szuchman’s purview.
Szuchman’s elevation to this new senior leadership position was remarkably swift, having joined the Times only in March 2020. She was previously an executive at New York Public Radio, which she joined as Senior Director of Digital Content in 2013 before becoming VP of New Show Development, which involves overseeing WNYC Studios, in 2015. Before that, she held management roles in The Daily Beast and Newsweek, and had spent eight years at the Wall Street Journal.
Those management experiences, particularly through WNYC, likely drove Szuchman’s appointment to this newly created Director of Audio role, which takes place against a larger context that involves some reshaping of processes in the wake of the Caliphate scandal.
But the promotion has also drawn criticism from at least one former staffer. Kathy Tu, who joined the Opinion Audio team in its earliest months before leaving last month, and who had also worked with Szuchman at WNYC (where Tu co-created Nancy), tweeted the following thread in response to the personnel news:
Tu declined to comment further when contacted.
When asked for a response on Tu’s comments, a Times spokesperson sent back a few lines from the official announcement on Szuchman’s promotion: “Paula is a compassionate manager and creative editor who makes every story she works on better. There’s no one better suited for this role managing the teams that make our podcasts, ensuring that our journalism remains excellent, and that we live up to our values in fostering an equitable and inclusive culture.”
What Is Fireside, Anyway?
The still-in-beta live audio app founded by Mark Cuban and Falon Fatemi apparently sees itself as seeing an “entirely new category,” as opposed to competing in the increasingly crowded live social audio space. (Listen, I get it, I like to think I’m unique too.)
In any case, The Verge’s Ashley Carman reports that Fireside is now inviting its early users to invest in the not-yet-formally-launched app, which I suppose is one way of doing it. Carman also writes that the startup is expecting to announce a partnership with Libsyn at the Podcast Movement conference this week, which would presumably allow Fireside creators to publish its entirely new live audio experience as podcasts through RSS feeds after the fact.
On a related note, the Podcast Movement conference is happening this week, which means there will probably a bunch of announcements trickling out over the next few days. I won’t be in Nashville — Crowds! Ahhh! — but I’ll be keeping my ears perked nevertheless.
➽ Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings have a new audio home: They’ve taken their independent podcast, For Colored Nerds (which had predated The Nod), to SiriusXM’s Stitcher. They will continue to fully hold the show’s IP, there’s an undisclosed revenue share in place with Stitcher, and the show will relaunch in the fall. The Verge’s Ashley Carman, again, with the story.
➽ Crooked Media released details for its 2021-2022 slate yesterday, which includes, among others, a new pop culture show from Jason Concepcion; an autobiographical project from the journalist Jason Rezaian about his political imprisonment in Iran in 2015-2016 (produced with Gimlet and, intriguingly, A24); and the latest audio project from Chenjerai Kumanyika, currently referred to as “an Untitled History of Policing Project.” More details in Variety.
➽ Some tension appears to be gripping the Writer’s Guild of America, East. The union — which has played a huge role in the labor organizing movement that has washed over the digital media industry in recent years, including with podcast shops like Gimlet Media, The Ringer, and Parcast — is said to be taking a “pause” on organizing digital newsrooms, according to an email sent out to members last week that was made public on social media. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this, and for those interested, start with this Poynter write-up.
➽ iHeartMedia announced two sports-related partnerships over the past week: One with Sports Illustrated, and one with the NBA. But they make new partnership announcements all the time — almost excessively, one could argue — so let’s take a few steps back for what’s arguably a more interesting development: In mid-July, Goldman Sachs initiated coverage on the once-bankrupt company’s stock and issued a “Buy” rating.
➽ WNYC announced a new senior level hire last week: Stephanie Clary, a VP at Vice, is joining the public radio organization as Deputy Editor, a newly created role.
➽ Over the weekend, The Guardian’s Miranda Sawyer made the argument for why independent podcasts are in peril.
➽ In other news, I am a monster.
How Podcasts End
By Caroline Crampton
Sometimes the end comes swiftly, because the media organisation that published your favourite podcast suddenly pivoted to video, or ad tech, or something else entirely. Sometimes it happens more slowly, with episodes gradually becoming more infrequent and the reruns stacking up in-between until one day the feed just stops updating altogether.
Whether there is a lengthy explanation or none at all, the loss of a beloved podcast listened to over many years can feel melancholy, even hurtful. The much-vaunted intimacy between podcast host and listener cuts the other way too. When we welcome our favourite shows into every part of our lives, it’s that much easier to feel their absence when they are gone.
For one reason or another, I’ve been thinking about endings quite a bit recently. Of course, there are lots of reasons why a podcast might have to cease production that has nothing to do with its creators — although, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it will still be the hosts who have to communicate that news to their audience. For the purposes of this column, I’m assuming that the show is ending on good terms with its listeners. Podcasts that conclude under other, less peaceful circumstances are a whole other issue.
Where I think this gets most interesting is when a podcast ends voluntarily. Longtime readers will know that creator burnout is a topic I’ve been interested in for quite some time, and I’ve felt for a while that the constant pressure of a regular publishing schedule and the need to upload consistently is part of why many in the audio industry have experienced it. (Other regularly publishing products, like newsletters, are of course susceptible to the same effect.) Cutting back on releases, taking a break, delegating work — these are all good techniques for managing burnout. But sometimes… you’ve just got to stop altogether.
And this is where that intimacy between the host and the listener, or the illusion of it, breaks down. Perhaps the podcast creator has been keeping quiet about what has been going on behind the scenes, putting a brave face on their difficulties. As far as the listener is concerned, shows go on forever, until that happy thought is contradicted by the announcement that the end is nigh. In the end, the fundamentally one-sided nature of the relationship is exposed, and it can be very disruptive.
These parasocial relationships are something that I read pretty obsessively about, and I’ve increasingly settled on the view that the concept is completely applicable to the podcaster-listener dynamic. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, I recommend checking out this great piece by Fadeke Adegbuyi, which outlines the phenomenon and how various platform mechanics encourage fans to feel invested in creators’ lives as a way of driving higher engagement. With audio, no such trickery is needed — merely the fact that you carry a voice around in your headphones and it feels as if they talking only to you is enough to form the connection.
Given this, it’s understandable that so many shows choose to go out with a slow fade rather than addressing the demise head on. If you’ve ever been in the situation of needing to bring a beloved project to a close, you’ll know that there are no good options available to you. It can feel like there are only two options: Either you ghost your fanbase and field bemused messages for years, or you lay it all out and field disappointed messages for years. A graceful exit is typically out of reach.
I’ve been thinking about the mechanics of this periodically since 2018, when I had to end a show with a moderately sized but extremely passionate fanbase. My co-host Anna Leszkiewicz and I made a pop culture chatcast for three and a half years, but when I left the company we both worked for, there wasn’t a viable way to continue with the show. We opted to give our listeners some warning, rather than just letting the podcast fade out with the end unacknowledged, and told them at the top of the penultimate episode that there would only be one more. Then we gathered as many friends of the pod as we could to make a final holiday special and let that be the last thing on the feed.
The majority of listeners who got in touch were delightful, expressing only regret because they had liked the show. But I still, nearly three years later, get a smattering of emails from people who want to understand why we didn’t carry the show on in our free time, free of charge, and when I was on book tour in 2019, there was someone at most of the events who waited behind afterwards to ask something similar. I had thought by giving the show its eschatological rites it might feel as if a line had been drawn beneath it, but no.
That show was only active for a bit over three years, and even then, we had changed so much as people while we were making it to the point where it didn’t fit into our lives quite so neatly anymore. This is the part of ending a podcast that is the hardest to acknowledge, I think. There’s a way in which having an eager, engaged audience keeps you frozen in the moment they start listening to you, even if a lot has changed behind the scenes.
When I spoke to Hillary Frank in 2019 about her decision to end The Longest Shortest Time after nearly a decade, she articulated a version of this really well. She started the parenting podcast “to feel less alone” after a difficult birth and relocation, but nine years laer, everything was different. “I’m in a different place in my life now, and somewhere along the way, the show became a symbol to me of my past trauma — something I don’t want to be reminded of on a daily basis,” she told me then.
Recently, the hosts of Answer Me This, a beloved British comedy podcast, announced that their 400th episode — which comes out this week — will be their last. Helen Zaltzman, one of those hosts, rationalised the choice perfectly. “We’ve been doing this since 2007,” she said. “How many of you have been doing the same job since 2007?” It’s a very good question.
The next time I end a podcast — and for the one listener to my current audio endeavour who is reading this, don’t worry, I have no plans to stop at the moment — I think I’ll follow the example set by the British novelist David Lodge in his 1975 novel Changing Places. A whimsical and formally experimental writer, with this book he was very preoccupied with how even if he did his best to disguise it, the reader would know that the story was coming to an end because there wouldn’t be many pages left to turn. The physical form of the book would betray him; “[the novelist] can’t disguise the tell-tale compression of the pages” as a character fumes late on.
Lodge’s solution to this was ingenious: In the final chapter, he switched from writing in conventional prose and instead rendered the last scene as an extract from a screenplay. There might not be many pages remaining in the hand, but the reader is intrigued — what does this formal shift indicate? It’s not how a novel usually concludes. Then the screenplay then cuts off in the middle of the action, with the final stage direction left hanging. A character shrugs, and we’re told that “the camera stops, freezing him mid gesture.” That’s all. It’s over.
In accordance with Larry David’s famous Seinfeld mantra, there’s no hugging or learning. While I’m not necessarily saying that all podcasts should end mid-sentence, I do think that creators should be allowed to break off, semi-permanently or indeed permanently, when they want to without it coming across as “ghosting.” To come back to the theme of burnout, I think this is an essential part of reducing the prevalence of this problem. It’s time to normalise ending things.
What’s In a Name?
By Aria Bracci
A few weeks ago, Skimm’d from the Couch, the podcast from, well, The Skimm, announced it was changing its name. The rebrand was pegged to a shift in content strategy: What was originally an interview show offering career insights to women — in which “the couch” refers not to lockdown activities but to the casual tone of the show, which launched in 2018 — will now be published under the name 9 to 5ish, with the new version aiming to more candidly address gender inequities like those exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly as more people return to in-person work. One way this rebrand — or any rebrand, in this current moment — could go over with listeners is that they take it in stride, particularly because, with our worlds having been upended by the pandemic, many of us now just take change as a given. And that’s nothing to sniff at, considering it’s not exactly rare for consumers to have negative reactions to rebrands.
Name changes can trigger confusion, complaints, or slow uptake from audiences. This, in turn, fuels a desire to get names right on the first try. In the particular context of podcasts — where, as this Eye on Design piece points out, your product can’t really be sampled by chance “in the wild,” the way a song could be overheard in a coffee shop — a listener also needs to opt into the product, which puts a lot of pressure on the name to do a lot of the work to hook that listener in the first place. For that reason, it’s helpful to think about podcast names as being the product of a specific calculation: One that balances how much to reveal and how much to leave out, with the goal of incentivizing people to tune in and learn more.
Here’s an example. Studio Ochenta, in partnership with TRAX and with marketing support from Radiotopia, recently launched a show that seeks to weave mythological elements into stories that are aimed at tweens. Maru Lombardo, senior producer at Studio Ochenta, told me this of the team’s naming process: “Lory Martínez, our executive producer, knew that its adventure stories were framed with a broader purpose — exploring cultural expressions, folklore, mythology, and customs. That had to be expressed as straightforwardly as possible in the show’s title. But we also had to make sure we were communicating the existence of a whole new magical universe in which rules worked differently. So, we came up with a new name for these stories’ world: Cultureverse.”
Cultureverse is a sonically bouncy name. It sounds vaguely superhero-like, capable of sparking the imagination of someone in middle school. It’s also pithy, bringing to mind the sense that a more specific title was perhaps unnecessary in order to pique the interest of the intended audience.
Indeed, invoking the particular curiosity of a specific crowd is what also led to the name of another Radiotopia title: The Stoop. “We got together and thought about the places where conversations happen around Blackness, spaces where we feel free and light and open, and [co-host Hana Baba and I] both at one point said ‘a stoop,” says co-creator and co-host Leila Day. “It became very clear that there’s an abundance of Black joy that happens on a stoop, so we stuck with that.” As is the case with Cultureverse, the name of The Stoop doesn’t communicate everything, but it communicates enough to the intended listeners, identified and targeted as kindred to the shows’ creators.
For shows that aim to attract a broader swathe of audiences — but whose creators want to maintain some creative freedom and avoid heavy handedness in the title (no offense, An Oral History of The Office) — the colon does a lot of work. Whether potential listeners notice the text that follows a colon in a show title is another story (one that’s harder to measure), but some producers bank on the extra verbiage to seal the deal when a somewhat ambiguous — but cool-sounding — title doesn’t give it all away.
One show in the portfolio of audio producer Robin Linn serves as a good example. Its title, And Nothing Less, comes from a longer quote, one that served as the motto for a 19th-century newspaper called The Revolution, whose contents and mission in turn served as inspiration for the podcast.
Don’t know The Revolution? Neither do I. And neither, Linn figures, do many of the intended listeners of the show. The full phrase, “men their rights and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less,” was used to pressure lawmakers in the 1860s into instating gender equality, specifically within the fight for suffrage, and Linn says the shorter phrase “and nothing less” served as “a through line we kept in mind during all the episodes,” particularly when attempting to extend discussions to the experiences of people of color. All in all, though, Linn and her team assumed that the phrase, however fitting, “wouldn’t communicate much, which is why there’s a colon,” says Linn, hence the full title, And Nothing Less: The Untold Stories of Women’s Fight for the Vote.
There are, of course, show titles that say much less, and that do so on purpose. With these projects, it’s the ambiguity and the potential that lies beyond the title that’s precisely the point, even if it makes the show somewhat hard to market.
Jason Gots’ Clever Creature is a podcast that perhaps sits at the other end of the spectrum from, say, Phoebe Reads a Mystery in terms of what you’ll hear in consecutive episodes, but the prompt is always the same: Conceive a song and short story based on a random word. It’s a concept sure to be liked by improv fans, but one that’s not explicitly communicated by the show’s title or its bright, cartoony cover art. (Though Gots says both the graphic and name pay homage to the cuttlefish, a camouflaging animal whose adaptability he channels when creating each episode.)
When I asked Gots what he thinks the cover art, along with the ambiguous title, communicates to listeners he hopes to attract, he said at first, “I guess I was hoping the title and the avatar would provoke curiosity and interest, rather than giving away the literal shape of the show.”
Then, following up over email, he added: “It seems to me that the bigger these content platforms get, and the more people compete to game the system by second guessing what audiences are going to understand and respond to, the more standardized and boring the things we make (and the way we package them) can become. Everything I’ve ever loved in art, literature, music, storytelling of any kind, has been unapologetically, weirdly itself. So I try not to second guess anybody, or to think in terms of branding that will communicate x, y, or z — just to make the thing I think is beautiful and interesting and fun.”
Again, for Gots, being clear isn’t the point. He’s not trying to hook listeners with a straightforward or heavy-handed title — though, realistically, in order to capture such the show’s contrived premise, the title would probably have to be excessively long and descriptive. Instead, he embraces the unpredictable outcome. The ambiguity of the title mirrors the shape-shifting nature of the show, which in turn reflects his larger stance on art: that it should take the form it needs to take, regardless of its ability to be described.
The Michael Ian Black-hosted Obscure, another show that Robin Linn produced, serves as an additional, quite literal example. “[T]he first season of Obscure was Michael reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, so he/we quite liked that and took it and ran,” says Linn. Though the second season now has Ian Black reading Frankenstein, “the idea of obscurity was a big theme of season one,” says Linn, and it holds true in the host’s commentary that continues into more recent episodes, hence the keeping of the name.
“Michael talked a lot about coming to terms with his own obscurity — or lack thereof, depending on who you ask — and whether this podcast was even a good idea and if anyone would listen,” Linn says. “And turns out, he doesn’t care, and the loyal and devoted few that do listen don’t care, either. It’s a weird show, and we like it that way.”