Tag Archives: podcast

Why competing publications are teaming up on podcasts

Slate's Political Gabfest

Slate’s Political Gabfest

Usually when two corporate entities enter into some kind of partnership you can be certain a small army of lawyers is involved in the process, each side guaranteeing that no ambiguity exists as to who owes what deliverables and share in costs. Not so with Crossing the Streams, the new pop culture podcast launched earlier this year as a collaboration between film news site Moviepilot and the humor magazine Cracked. Alisha Grauso, Moviepilot’s editor-in-chief, first met the Cracked team when she was attending Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo in the fall. “Their PR guy reached out and said, ‘Hey, we heard you’re going to be at Comikaze. You have a great site and it overlaps with what we do, and we should talk because we have ideas for things we could collaborate on.’”

Grauso met with Jack O’Brien, Cracked’s editor-in-chief, and Daniel O’Brien, one of the magazine’s lead writers, and though the group discussed a variety of projects, they quickly settled on teaming up for a podcast. There isn’t 100 percent overlap in their coverage — Moviepilot focuses mostly on film and television, and while Cracked does cover pop culture, it’s usually through an idiosyncratic, humorous lens — but both are deeply rooted in geek culture, so Crossing the Streams would cover topics ranging from film to television to comic books, but from an insider’s point of view. “Jack doesn’t necessarily have a movie background, but he has a broad pop culture background,” she said. “I come from movies, but can talk about other areas as well.” Together, they could use their clout and connections to invite Hollywood insiders onto the show. An episode released in March, for instance, featured a panel discussion that included Alonso Duralde of The Wrap and Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg where the four conversed on the history of the Oscars and why the ceremony is currently broken.

Why did Moviepilot choose to team up with Cracked rather than just going it alone? To understand Grauso’s decision, it’s helpful to consider Moviepilot’s history and its relatively recent entry into the U.S. market. It was founded in the mid 2000s when three German entrepreneurs got together and formed a production company. After producing a few movies, they concluded they could better promote their films if they had an online community to market to — thus Moviepilot.de was born. “Then after a few years they realized they could only grow so big within the German market,” said Grauso. “German movies are great and popular in Germany, but only in Germany.” So in 2012, the company launched a sister website in the U.S.

In just three years, the site’s audience has grown tremendously. It pulls in 35 million unique visitors who generate over 80 million pageviews a month. But given its newness to the U.S. market, it doesn’t yet have strong brand recognition compared to some of its older peers. Cracked, on the other hand, not only has a large audience but has also been around for a decade; this has allowed it to amass a much more devout following. “For us it’s a win-win,” she said. “We don’t make money off it, but it’s a form of branding, getting our name out to a new audience. It’s ‘Hey, we’re working with Cracked, you know Cracked!’ It’s about name recognition.”

Moviepilot isn’t the only publication to have realized the benefits of teaming up with a competing outlet to launch a podcast. Because podcasting is a nascent medium with a growing-but-still-latent user base, news organizations and media personalities are finding they can attract a following much more quickly if they combine resources and work together to drive listenership. In some cases this involves informal collaborations, like when comedians sit down for guest interviews on each other’s shows, but other media entities are entering into official partnerships. The New Yorker and and the public radio station WNYC, for example, inked a deal earlier this year to create a one-hour podcast and national radio show.

Perhaps no podcast collaboration is larger than the one rolled out by Slate in February. As I’ve documented previously, Slate has a 10-year history growing a popular podcast network, one that boasts a legion of fervid fans. With shows ranging from its Better Call Saul recaps to the Political Gabfest, the online magazine has amassed millions of listeners and secured sponsorships with well-known brand advertisers. But the February announcement — that it was rebranding its podcast network under the name Panoply — indicated that it has much higher ambitions than simply hosting shows featuring Slate journalists. In addition to its current stable of podcasts, the network has entered partnerships with over a dozen other publications, including Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Inc, and Popular Science.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s executive producer who’s been involved with Slate’s podcast network since the very beginning, told me that the magazine realized within the last year that it had spent a decade building the infrastructure and knowledge to maintain a podcast network and that other publications, many of which have dipped their toes into podcasting but haven’t fully committed, could benefit from that knowledge and support. “Of course they could do it on their own, and some have done it on their own,” said Bowers. “But we figured that the case would be a lot easier to take to their higher ups if they said, ‘We can just go and let Slate do it for us.’”


There are a number of services Panoply offers to its media partners, many of which position it as more of a behind-the-scenes production company, one that handles most of the technical aspects of podcasting while the publications supply the talent. Most of the media partners are based in New York, which allows them to visit the Slate offices and use its recording studio. There are about six full-time staff members on Panoply’s production side along with a number of freelancers; this core team helps the partners with everything from recording the podcast to editing and remixing it. Moviepilot experienced similar benefits when teaming up with Cracked. “They work with Earwolf Studios,” said Grauso, referring to the podcast network that produces shows for major comedians. “We go to a studio where we have mics and we can all see each other. There’s an audio engineer listening the whole time who’s adjusting volume, adjusting mics, and then they have an engineer who cuts it all together. It’s pretty high tech and they handle all of it.”

In addition to its production services, Panoply also handles much of the ad placement for the network. Not only does it have access to the direct response advertisers that are currently found on most podcasts (Audible, Squarespace, Dollar Shave Club), but it has also built inroads with the lucrative brand sponsors that have so far eluded the podcasting medium. “We leave it open for each organization to bring their own ad sales to the podcast if they want,” said Bowers. “Some have taken us up on it, but most are relying on us” to sell ads. In all cases the media partner has full ownership of the podcast and Panoply takes a portion of the ad revenue it sells.

Of course one of the biggest benefits the Panoply network offers is the ability to attract a large audience very quickly. As I and others have pointed out, podcast discovery includes a lot more friction compared to other mediums and often relies more on old-fashioned word of mouth. You’re unlikely to see podcasts shared on Facebook with the same frequency as images, text, or video, and it’s generally accepted that the best way to promote a new podcast is to have it plugged on a much more popular podcast. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite common, when you’re listening to a Panoply podcast, to hear a promo for another Panoply podcast. “Think of it as a newsstand,” said Bowers. “If a newsstand only carried one publication, would you be likely to go there? Probably not. But you go to a newsstand looking for one or two things, and there’s a bunch of other things there too, and you’re likely to peruse those things and maybe even buy them.” It’s a “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy.

Perhaps one reason these publications have been so amenable to collaboration is that podcasting, despite being on the upswing, is still far from mainstream adoption, at least the kind of mainstream adoption enjoyed by its sister medium, radio. It’s easy to team up when there isn’t much money on the table (a recent analysis from FiveThirtyEight found that a third of the top 100 podcasts didn’t even have a single ad). Once it enters the zeitgeist — and many of its proponents think it eventually will — then these partnerships might become more corporatized and structured. For now, most of its practitioners are looking to have some fun, and any other benefit, whether it’s increased branding or a little extra money, is a welcome addition. When I spoke to Grauso, she didn’t seem too concerned with whether the Crossing the Streams podcast would ever produce significant revenue.

“If we get to that point, then that’s awesome. But it’s not something we’re really thinking about at the moment.”


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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Are audiobooks benefiting from the current podcast boom?


Did you hear the news? Podcasts, once a niche product, are now “booming.” Due partially to the success of Serial, the This American Life spin-off podcast reinvestigating a 1999 murder in Baltimore, the medium has now made its way into the “cultural mainstream.” Yes, journalists have been prone to hyperbole when touting a podcast explosion, and there’s ample evidence they were already tremendously popular before the debut of Serial, but it does seem that they’ve entered our everyday conversation, and it’s not uncommon now to discuss a podcast with friends the same way you may otherwise talk about a new episode of a popular television show.

If you are a consistent listener of podcasts as I am, then you’ve likely noticed that a constant sponsor of many of the most popular shows has been Audible.com, the largest outlet for purchasing and listening to audiobooks, as well as the world’s largest producer of audiobooks. This makes total sense when you think about it. According to data from podcasting ad platform Midroll, podcast listeners are affluent and well-educated, and they’ve already made a habit of downloading audio files and listening to them during their commutes and/or free time. This is an audience primed for conversion from free audio podcasts to paid-for audiobooks.

So are audiobooks, like podcasts, seeing an explosion in growth? And if they are, is the mainstream success of podcasts helping that growth? I’ll spoil the answer to the first question: Yes. The answer to the second is more difficult to tease out.

According to a survey conducted by the Audio Publishers Association, a trade industry group, not only are we seeing a rise in the number of audiobooks published every year (35,713, more than double the previous year’s 16.039), but “net sales in dollars are up 12% over the prior year’s revenues,” bringing revenue to $1.2 billion. In 1997 the entire industry only generated $480 million. Digital downloads make up 70 percent of all podcasts sold and the overwhelming majority of audiobook purchases, 80 percent, were of fiction titles.

Amanda D’Acierno, the publisher at Penguin Random House Audio, confirmed in a phone interview that what we’re seeing is, indeed, a huge expansion in the audiobook market. “It’s been absolutely huge growth. year after year,” she said. “Especially the past six or seven years as we’ve all become accustomed to having a smartphone in our pockets and being able to listen that way. When I joined this division 11 years ago, it was rare that I would meet people who would listen to audiobooks. It was not uncommon to meet people who never listened to audiobooks or didn’t even know what an audiobook was. I don’t think I’ve gotten that question in the last three or four years: what is an audiobook?’”

The audiobook industry emerged in the 1950s, first with LPs and then graduating to cassette tapes and later CDs. For a long time it was very much an ancillary, small portion of the overall book market. Because of the high costs of producing audiobooks and the requirement of multiples tapes or CDs, they’ve historically been much more expensive than hardbacks and were primarily sold to libraries, where it was more practical for consumers to borrow them. Also, because of the limited capacity of cassettes and CDs, listening to an audiobook could sometimes be a clunky experience. If you were listening to a CD in your car and then wanted to pick up where you left off in your kitchen, you’d have to awkwardly fast forward through a chapter until you found your place again.

Though audiobooks are still far outsold by their print counterparts, they’re becoming less and less of a niche market. Penguin Random House has 12 recording studios and producers on both the West and East coasts, and D’Acierno said that each year she publishes about 10 percent more audiobooks than the year prior. Currently, the company produces between 700 and 800 titles annually, about a fourth of what it publishes on the print side. I had assumed that it automatically owns the audio rights of any book it publishes, but it’s not uncommon for either a Penguin Random House author to sell his audio rights elsewhere or for Penguin Random House to purchase the audio rights for a book put out by another publisher.”About  80 percent of my adult Penguin Random House list is published [in print] here at Random House,” she said. On the children’s books side, roughly half of her audiobook inventory was published in print by non-Random House companies.

So why is there so much growing interest in audiobooks? “The iPod did amazing things for the audio business,” said D’Acierno. Not only did it expand the market of portable listening devices, but companies like Audible, no longer bogged down with the expensive production of multiple CDs, drove down the prices so they’re much more affordable. As for the role podcasts play? “Serial is certainly capturing so many listeners right now, and it definitely helps with awareness,” she said. “Audible is very, very smart to promote their services on podcasts, because once you as a consumer become aware of the spoken word and how easy it is to download and how much of a pleasure listening to a story makes your commute every day, then we definitely have our converts.”


Matthew Thornton, Audible’s senior director of communications, had a reverse thesis for the chicken or egg scenario — that podcasts were influenced, in part, by the rising popularity of audiobooks. “Audible was doing podcasts before podcasts,”  he wrote to me in an email. He pointed to original programming in the early aughts with Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais’s podcast as a paid product, Susie Bright’s weekly show, as well as recurring New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other magazine and radio content. In a follow-up phone interview, he explained how Audible has been expanding the market for audio listening on your phone, in many ways paving the way for the success of podcasts like Serial. “Serial has been huge,” he said. “I would assume that it’s brought some people who were not listening to content before to [regularly downloading audio], but we’ve been experiencing this kind of growth for years.”

What seems apparent is that audiobook listeners, once they’re converted to the medium, become fervent consumers of content. The average Audible customer downloads more than 17 titles per year; the average American reads 12 books per year. The overwhelming majority of Audible listeners take part in its subscription offering. On its lowest-tier plan, users pay $14.95 per month for 12 “credits” a year (a credit is usually equal to one audiobook download). And because Audible is now owned by Amazon, it was able to launch Whispersync for Voice, a technology that keeps your place across formats and devices so if you purchase a Kindle book and the corresponding Audible audiobook, you can switch back and forth between reading and listening and never lose your place. If you’re reading on your couch and then leave to drive to the grocery store, the audiobook version picks up where you left off in the ebook.

Audiobooks have become so popular, in fact, that Audible has begun to commission original works — audiobooks that don’t have print counterparts. As detailed recently in the New York Times, the bestselling crime writer Jeffery Deaver wrote an audio drama specifically for Audible. “You have this massive opportunity when you don’t have to fight for people’s eyes,” Audible chief executive Donald Katz told the Times. “It’s time for us to move from sourcing content that can produce fantastic audio, on to imagining what the aesthetic of this new medium should be from the ground up.”

It’s not difficult to imagine those same words coming out of the mouth of someone at This American Life or a producer from one of the dozens of other high-quality podcasts currently running. It seems that asking whether podcasting caused a boom in audiobook sales or vice versa is perhaps the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe instead we should ask whether the two forms are merging, and when we’ll see one medium cross over into the other. After all, what is Serial but a 12-chapter non-fiction crime book? Perhaps it’s time for Serial host Sarah Koenig to start shopping for a literary agent.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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