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This is Hot Pod, a newsletter about the podcast industry and other matters econometrical. This is Issue Sixty-Three, published March 8, 2016.

If someone sent this to you, give that person my love, and consider subscribing.

Everyone else: welcome back to the show.


  • More than one in five Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to Edison Research.
  • Midroll consolidates its content arms.
  • WNYC is rolling out limited run series on gentrification in Brooklyn.
  • Night Vale Presents launches its first title.
  • I go deep on how iTunes works, and what it means.

Edison Research: Monthly Pod Consumption Surges. More than one in five Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to data teased in a new blog post by Edison Research. Specifically, 21% of Americans (or an estimated 57 million) report having done so, representing a pretty significant jump from 2015, which saw 17% of surveyed Americans reporting that behavior. In 2014, that number was 15%, so we’re talking about a doubling in percentage point growth.

Another sweet way to cut it: monthly American podcast consumption grew about 24% between 2015 and 2016. Don’t you just love stats?

It’s certainly an encouraging data point for all who are enthusiastic about podcasts as the future of radio/audio/blogging. And I’m certainly tempted to think that we’re finally seeing evidence of tangible wide-scale conversions from all the buzz and hype that podcasting enjoyed last year.

A plausible counter-argument is as follows: is this number a true reflection of solid, genuine, and sustainable consumer acquisition (and retention) across the medium, or does it more represent a period where listeners are merely testing out the format? That question, to some extent, is irrelevant for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a question with no meaningful immediate answer, because the process is still playing itself out. And secondly, the number itself is an influencing factor — as a positive public indicator that fuels for the industry’s vision and presentation of itself, one imagines that countless folks out to build new businesses within the medium will use this statistic in a pitch deck, playing out a fulfillment of their own prophecy.

Which is all to say: this data point is very good, and I’m going to call my mum and tell her I didn’t screw up my life joining this industry. Cool? Cool.

Anyway, Edison’s data point here is excerpted from the much larger Infinite Dial 2016 study, which is scheduled to be released later this week. The study comes out a partnership between Edison Research and Triton Digital, a digital audio technology and advertising company.

I’ll post some initial thoughts on Friday’s members newsletter, and I’ll write up a complete item on next week’s Hot Pod.

Midroll Tightens Its Brand. Scripps-owned Midroll Media is sunsetting its Wolfpop podcast network this week. Wolfpop was previously branded as Midroll’s pop culture-oriented owned and operated content arm curated by comedian Paul Scheer — as opposed the company’s flagship comedy-oriented Earwolf brand (yeah, it’s a little confusing, which is probably why we’re seeing this consolidation, I imagine).

Ten out of Wolfpop’s thirteen podcasts will now live under the Earwolf umbrella. The three shows that will not continue its relationship with Midroll are: Rotten Tomatoes, Picking Favorites, and Off Camera with Sam Jones. The company also announced that Hello From Magic Tavern, a well-loved and utterly weird podcast previously supported by the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, is joining the network.

Midroll Chief Content Officer Chris Bannon made these announcements on the Earwolf forums yesterday, citing that “this change is a way for us to make Earwolf a bigger, better and more inclusive network.”

I reached out to Bannon, who previously served as WNYC’s VP of Content Development and Production, and asked whether we’d be seeing any news programming coming out of Earwolf anytime soon. “I’ll certainly be taking a hard look at what we can contribute to our listeners’ needs for smart news programming,” he wrote back. “Right now, it feels as though many of the newsmakers are venturing pretty deeply into the comedy space, though. We will have announcements on the news front soon."

Coy, Bannon. Very Coy.

This development was foreshadowed by a job posting that the company put up last week, which contained the following self-description:

"This group, led by our VP of Business Development, identifies and brings aboard great new podcasts and creators for all three of our major lines of business: Midroll, the leader in podcast ad sales; Earwolf, our owned & operated podcast network; and Howl, our premium audio subscription service."

In related Midroll news: the company has also hired Jenny Radelet, who previously served as Executive Media Producer for the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 service, as the Managing Editor for Howl, the company’s subscription service. She started work yesterday.

Limited-Run Local Journalism. This week, WNYC will kick off “There Goes The Neighborhood,” a limited-series podcast that’ll explore the topic of gentrification in Brooklyn. I personally get all my New York-related gentrification news from The Awl, but I’m intrigued to see that the show is produced in partnership with The Nation — another example in a swell of collaborations between audio companies and existing publications (see WBUR’s Modern Love, WNYC’s the New Yorker Radio Hour, KPCC’s recently concluded The Awards Show Show, and the majority of Panoply’s operating model). The show will run for eight episodes and is hosted by Kai Wright, The Nation’s Features Editor.

“Neighborhood” is notable to me for two reasons: firstly, it looks to be a strong piece of local journalism, something I don’t get to see very much of in podcastland. Granted, it’s local to New York, perhaps the most saturated media market in the world, but still. Secondly, it’s the first major audio project that features the involvement of Rebecca Carroll, who joined WNYC last October as a producer of special projects about race in New York City.

“I’m here to generate ideas,” Carroll said to me over the phone last Friday, when I asked about her role within the station. “We’re experiencing a moment right now in American culture where our most famous public intellectual is Ta-Nehisi Coates, where we have the Black Live Matters movement, Black Twitter, and an election that comes down to the Black vote. It’s a moment where blackness and black culture is being listened to, and my aim is to wrest that moment and harness it in a way that can be fanned back out into the most creative, innovative, interesting life-changing way."

There Goes The Neighborhood” is scheduled to debut tomorrow, March 9. A teaser for the show is up already.

Ed. Note: That's not how a chicken sounds like.
From Jeffrey Yamaguchi, hangin' out in Sunset Park:
"Listen to the new trailer for Memory Motel, a podcast that explores the slippery nature of memory through science and personal storytelling. Show launch and party on 3/15/16. Full details:"
From William Beutler:
"ENTER THE VOID is a podcast about absolutely the strangest movies ever, from your co-hosts Bill and Renan. Season 2 kicks off with Lynch's ERASERHEAD, Gilliam's BRAZIL, and only gets weirder from there." (iTunes | Facebook | Twitter)
From William Nutt:
"Digital marketing agency Nutt is tailoring a package of tools for podcasts, and a small group of beta testers will enjoy steep discounts. If your website or newsletter could use a facelift, an SEO boost or a full-on growth strategy, request your invitation at"
Every week will just feature three slots. Rates can be found here.

An Indie Label Comes Alive. Night Vale Presents, the new indie podcast label — that’s what I’m calling it, guys, just roll with it come on —  founded by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the wildly popular “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast,  published its first title today. The show, “Alice Isn’t Dead,” is an audio drama written by Fink, and it’s scheduled to play out across 10 bi-weekly episodes.

“Alice” is, in a lot of ways, quintessential Night Vale. It shares its predecessor’s particular brand of creepiness — American Gothic, but everything's twisted slightly to the left — and, like Night Vale, “Alice” displays Fink’s fascination with Americana. Where Night Vale is a love letter to small town America, “Alive” is a meditation of the expansive, desolate imagery of the desert highways that make up the vast middle of the country. I’ve heard cuts of the first two episodes, and I really, really like ‘em. (The Times in on it, by the way).

“Night Vale Presents” was conceived out of a logistical necessity. Fink and Cranor had wanted to develop more projects beyond their core show, and built Night Vale Presents to be a framework that supports them. “We don't have any plans to try to grow it into an empire or start taking tech funding or any of that,” Fink told me over email. “What we do hope to do is keep making new podcasts, both our own and works by other artists who haven't worked in the podcast space before.

I’ll run the full email Q&A I had with Fink in Friday’s members newsletter. Seeing a trend here? I’m told it’s called a ~marketing funnel~

On iTunes, Part One. So, the most common inquiry I get from Hot Pod readers tends to involve the same subject and overwhelmingly comes in the form of a gripe: how, exactly, does the iTunes charts work? (The second most common inquiry, for the curious: how much so-and-so makes. That’s… I don’t know what to say about that. Leaving that for another day.)

It’s a question I try to stay away from, for a simple reason: I don’t think it’s something that should be fixated upon. Sure, 70% of podcast listening happens through iTunes and the native iOS podcast app, or so we’re told, and regardless of whether that’s true or not — it’s impossible to verify, frankly, given the immature state of podcast measurement — it remains the case that there are many, many other avenues for podcast creators to reach potential new audiences that have not been adequately utilized, including basic stuff like search and social. And it benefits the medium as a whole if more creators leaned harder into non-iTunes avenues. Think about it: attempts to convert audiences through the iTunes platform is a play to win already well-worn, probably maxed out podcast audiences, and if every podcast creator assumes a strategy with iTunes — the platform in general, the charts in specific — at the core, then every podcast creator is essentially competing for the very same pool of ears.

So that’s where my head was at. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there may something to be gained by really thinking through the theory and context of the iTunes charts, and asking the question: how does the charts shape the space? However, in order to do that, I would first have to try and understand how the charts work in the first place.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

At this point, I’m going to lay down two core hypotheses, and I’m going to argue for their theoretical fidelity by disclosing that they are informed by a combination of these things: a survey I recently ran among Hot Pod newsletter subscribers (I pulled 18 representative responses that you can view here), conversations with many, many, many podcast creators, stuff published by other podcast folks who have conferred with iTunes reps in the past, and drawing from my own experience with my old day job employer. iTunes reps, understandably, declined to publicly comment.

My hypotheses are as follows:

(1) The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefit from keeping users within their ecosystems, are incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number of downloads on iTunes, and so on.

(2) The charts are designed chiefly as a discovery tool, and it performs its duty by identifying and rewarding podcasts with a sense of momentum. Thus, what’s privileged is relative positive change; getting an additional 1,000 interactions on top of a 10,000 interaction base (say, subscriptions) will send you up quicker than an additional 1,000 on top of 100,000. Again, this makes sense: if the charts were designed to display a power ranking of the most successful shows, then the top ten placements would simply never change, with the biggest shows standing to just keep getting bigger. And because iTunes is fully incentivized to provide a chart that, well, actually provides value to users to keep them on the platform, they’d need to rely on a discovery mechanism that allows for the top chart placements to constantly change. In a lot of ways, the charts are actually pretty democratic.

These two hypotheses don’t explain the charts in totality (nothing can, really, other than the algorithm-turned-sentient), but I believe them to be strong starting points to understand the charts. In sum: the charts are designed for discovery, but the engine they are built upon are iTunes interactions — and so podcasts move up because they engender more iTunes-driven subscriptions and downloads, because moving up is a form of reward. Once you settle into that, some things begin to make sense. It's how you get a Disney enthusiast podcast in the top 5 between Serial and Alice Isn’t Dead — as it was positioned at 4pm ET on March 4. It’s also how you get a parodic sports talk radio podcast sitting on the top spot in that same time period, even though it’s only loaded with a preview. (The prescriptive here is fairly clear: if you wanna play the charts game, optimize your marketing for iTunes interactions. Didn’t want to point it out, but what the hell I’ve already gone this far.)

And here’s where we get back to my original query: what effect does this particular chart system have on the podcasting space?

As my inbox suggests, it generates a lot of angst. I’d argue that feeling comes out of an interpretation that the iTunes podcast charts should serve as a mechanism that adequately signals or communicates a podcast’s value or worth. Which is an understandable interpretation to hold because, and here’s where I make a sweeping overgeneralization, charts are typically designed to serve as tools to signal value.

And that’s the thing: that’s not what the iTunes charts is designed to do. It was designed to optimize for engagement on its platform, and not to provide a direct and clear representation of what’s valuable. (Although, the rocketing up of a podcast on the charts does indicate a kind of value — it’s just we’re getting a proxy-value.) But there is a strong tendency to read iTunes as a prime arbiter of value because, well, we don’t have anything else.

Absent of other means of context or evaluation, a singular chart of this nature leads to a muddled representation of the podcasting landscape, as it renders any act of interpreting relative value between podcasts almost impossible. And this provides a poor feedback loop for podcast creators, because a big part of understanding the health of your show is knowing how it stacks against other shows.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t perceive this as a story about the problem with iTunes — as far as I'm concerned, there is no problem with iTunes, because iTunes gotta iTunes. Rather, it's a story about the medium's larger problem of being to know itself, and the fact that the main way the industry does is dependent on a single, and incredible incomplete, point of view.

Okay, so I’m running out of space right now, and I wanted to talk about two more things: how the iTunes charts impact the relationship between podcast creators and advertisers, and what market opportunities are baked into the situation. The former will come in next week’s letter, but I’ll drop it in the member newsletter as well, which you get if you support Hot Pod by signing up for The Thing. Which, you know, I’d argue that you should if you find any of this work valuable at all, because it’s the only way I’ll be able to keep doing it.

  • “How Politico’s ‘Off Message’ Podcast Is Rising Above Site’s Staff Departures.” A winning combination of strong booking...  and loose lips. (The Wrap)

  • “No More Car Talk as WBEZ Turns More Airtime over to Podcasts.” Something’s going on at Ben Calhoun’s Navy Pier operation. (Chicago Mag)

  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Quah hobby horses: Recode is probably going to continue expanding their podcast offerings. I buzz with excitement. (CNN Money)

  • “Facebook Messenger Adds Music, Starting With Spotify’s Song Sharing.” All the potential around messaging that you’re already excited about, now with more audio! (TechCrunch)

  • Amazon rolls out two alternate versions of their Echo product, including a puck-sized model designed to latch onto non-Amazon speakers and turn them into voice-based gateways to the Internet. In case you’re new to this column, I’m personally very pro-Amazon Echo as far as its potential for non-visual — read: audio-oriented — computing. As a person who’s morbidly afraid of losing his eyesight, I’m all about that. (The Verge)

Correction: On last week's piece about WBUR, one of the two launch sponsors for "Modern Love" was Living Proof, not Living Social. My bad!
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So, I've been trying to figure out what, and how, exactly to approach this column on diversity in radio and podcasting that I've held myself responsible to write. I'm struggling with both the broad strokes and the details; I'm even struggling with what to call it: I so dislike the word "diversity," for all the reasons that many far smarter than me have articulate: it's been commodified, it's been rendered meaningless, it has become a shell of the idea it's meant to introduce. I'll come up with something soon enough.

I'm still figuring out the terms and scope of this mini-column, and over the course of the next week, I'm going to try and talk to as many people as possible. Again, if you've got something to say, let me know. Or maybe I'll just find out that the overwhelming majority of the Hot Pod readership is white — it does, after all, cover the podcasting space. In which case, I'll lie down and figure out what to do next.
Post Notes

A partial list of things I now love deeply than I did not before, two weeks after launching The Thing and three weeks after going self-employed/freelance/whatever you want to call the garbage fire that now makes up my professional concerns: my accountant, Quickbooks, calculators, my accountant's assistant,, envelopes you can't see through which I believe are called security envelopes oh dude I totally get it now, my accountant's smooth beautiful radio voice, classical music, Zayn, my accountant.

See you next week. And sign up for the Thing! 
Have a question, comment, or tip? You can reach me at, or on Twitter

I'm almost always there.
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