The New York Times Gets Serious About Podcasting
When the New York Times launched its first podcast in 2006, hardly anyone knew what to make of it.
Then, only 11 percent of U.S. adults listened to any podcast and only 22 percent had even heard the term, reports Edison Research, which tracks the nascent industry.
First published at Politico Media
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Today, as the Times announces its fourth new podcast of the modern era, and an agreement to use state-of-the-art podcast-serving technology, 36 percent of Americans listen to podcasts and 55 percent have heard of them.
“Jenna and I are basically talking about aspects of life and popular culture and things happening in the world,” the Times’ Wesley Morris told me Monday, sketching out “Still Processing,” the show announced today.
“We’re going to go out in the world and have these experiences with each other that involve other people and do a lot of field work. A lot of those are about trying to work something out, a TV show or a controversy everyone’s talking to about …. It’s two people just talking. We’re going to have a lot of people on, people who do and make things.”
Jenna is Jenna Wortham, a 32-year-old fast-rising Times presence, who is now a staff writer on the Times Magazine. As in all things podcasting, the key is rapport, and the relationship between Wortham and 40-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning Morris, who was named a critic at large for culture at the Times a year ago.
Those familiar with their work can expect a lively 45-minute-plus weekly show, launching Thursday, with a trailer dropped into iTunes today. The Times has scheduled 26 programs.
“It’s not going to be a trip down the rabbit hole,” said Wortham. “There’s too much pressure to consume and discard.”
Working with the “still processing” notion, they’ll step back a bit and think things through, publicly and in partnership.
Both writers speak of their own learning in creating the show, in association with podcast production start-up Pineapple Street Media, of thinking of the show as a “journey” that they take their listeners along on. On their first show, the duo explores Central Park, and listeners will be along to see what they newly discover.
“Still Processing” joins the highly promoted “The Run-Up,” which launched as No. 2 on the iTunes chart. Injected into the heat of the presidential campaign, the Times political reporter Michael Barbaro-hosted show has run twice weekly since early August. Given the Times’ flexibility with its smartphone design [“The New York Times Re-Invents Page One for Digital Era”], The Run-Up has gotten prime promotion. Up less than a month, the Times says it has surpassed one million downloads in total.
Then, in November, Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner returns to the Times (where the Freakonomics blog ran from 2007-2011).
“Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” sounds like a next-gen podcast idea, building in a live event as part of the show from the beginning. Billed as “equal parts game show, talk show, and brain-tease,” the show offers audience members to present an “IDK” — an “I don’t know” — to a panel of celebrities and. The panelists will “interrogate” each guest presenter, all with the aim to “make us all a bit smarter.”
The new programs join two from the earlier days of podcasting. The Times’ Books podcast just celebrated its 10th anniversary, and its Popcast continues its long run. Further, the Times offers “Inside the Times” part of its Times Insider push.
One thing to watch with the Stephen Dubner six-part series – to run in November, presumably post-election when we may all need it — is the ability of Times subscribers to get first call on participation in the show. That’s a big part of the business model here: using the podcasting boom as still another way to boost Times reader connection, acquiring new subscribers and retaining those it now has that account for 57 percent of its overall revenue.
That is the prism through which to view this new Times initiative. The Times’ driving mantra, from CEO Mark Thompson on down through the organization: do more for readers, who sometimes are viewers (of video or virtual reality) or listeners.
Despite its embrace of all things digital, podcasting hadn’t become part of the company’s new digital strategy – until this summer. Now seeing the boom in podcast listening, the Times’ is a relatively small new bet on podcasting (compared to some of its other recent large initiatives), adding an audio-on-demand team of about a half dozen. That team, as of today, also includes the highly regarded Andy Mills, moving to the Times from the aural rule-breaker, WNYC’s acclaimed RadioLab.
Samantha Henig, newly announced as co-head of the team with Lisa Tobin, detailed the depth of the Times’ audio commitment to me recently.
“We got a three-year investment from the company based on our business plan, which had a lot of assumptions. Now that we’re a little deeper into it, we have a better sense of what we can do. Advertisers are excited, and we might scale up our ambitions in the coming years.”
Henig and Tobin’s team will include a half-dozen or so staffers. Tobin recently joined the initiative as executive producer, bringing significant podcast production experience. She helped lead the development of the Modern Love podcast a show based on the popular Times’ feature on contemporary coupling that became a WBUR-produced podcast in January. That showed topped the iTunes chart, at launch, then displacing the phenomenon that has been Serial. It now attract about 300,000 downloads per week.
In addition, she brought in “Dear Sugar,” a top-ranked new advice podcast to market as well as producing several news-related audio projects as well.
Tobin said, “We went from the special projects, documentary series, all things experimental, to exclusively focusing on new program development and out of that is when the seeds for that were planted to focus on sustainable programming.”
We can see in the WBUR work, in the Times’ new initiative and much more widely – as Gimlet Media, Wondery and Panoply all emerge as podcast networks – a growing up of the podcast trade. Podcasting moves beyond the experimental.
“There’s an appreciation for the work that it actually takes to make great programming, not just, ‘Let’s try this as an experiment,’ but to put production resources up front,” adds Tobin,
As it builds a podcasting strategy – “several” more are expected to be launched within the next year – the Times will build both internal capacity and work with partners and vendors.
“Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” is one co-production with Steven Dubner’s own production company.
With “Still Processing,” the Times was able to launch more quickly given its work with Pineapple Street Media. Itself a new effort, just launched in May, Pineapple Street aims at a high-end market. The Times serves as one early marquee client, as does Lena Dunham as her Lenny Letter goes pod.
“We want to be in the top one hundred or the top ten of iTunes,” says Jenna Weiss-Berman, who left her position directing Buzzfeed Audio to co-found Pineapple Street with Max Linsky, a cofounder of Longform.org.
“I think in the end that actually is where the money is. It’s in the shows that are doing really well. There are all of these places now, media companies, that want to start 20 podcasts and we are trying to tell them all is just start one that’s really good.”
Most central to the Times’ ability to manage podcasting as modern digital business is its signing with Art19, also announced today.
Art19 has moved to the forefront of the podcast business. The five-year-old business now moves into prime time, adding the Times to its recently announced agreements with big podcast player Midroll Media, as well as start-up Wondery and DGital in late August.
Sean Carr, CEO of San Francisco-based Art19, says the company brings “listening telemetrics” to podcast publishers.
Art19’s offerings show how much digital technology and thinking now impact the podcasting business. In short, Art19’s 360-degree platform, hosting, white-label player and ad tech solutions aim to take what has been a largely artisanal approach to the pod form and modernize. “Dynamic insertion” of ads – already introduced by podcast innovator Panoply, a Graham Holdings sister company of Slate — updates ad serving significantly. Podcast listeners will hear fresh ads, even in older podcasts. Further, the system offers much better metrics and ad tracking, bugaboos in many current operations.
Samantha Henig describes a new business in planned phasing.
“We’re sending people to iTunes at the moment. Our short-term strategy is to go where the listeners are and build big audiences and get our name out there as a creator of great audio content. We’ll also promote it from our mobile app where we have a link right there to go listen.” Longer-term, the Art 19 relationship will enable the Times to become more its own destination for podcast listening.
For the Times, podcasting adds to its reader revenue and relationship strategies. At the same time, it offers one more source of new digital ad revenue, as print ad revenue craters. The Times’ ad teams will add podcasting sponsorships to its ad bundles, especially for its top brand customers.
As other companies, including Panoply focus on creating branded content podcast packages and programs, for GE and others, the Times should find new opportunities for its fast-growing T Brand Studio.
There’s no question that there’s a lot of new money sloshing around in the infant podcast economy.
According to Bridge Ratings, which sizes the podcast ad market, sales should reach $167 million this year, a 48 percent year over year increase. Within three years, it forecasts that number to approach $400 million. Consider the Times’ investment a small claim on that potential.