February 23, 2019
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How I podcast

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I’ve been podcasting in various forms for about a dozen years now. Sometimes it has been within the corporate confines of the various publications I’ve worked for and sometimes it has just been for myself. That’s the beauty of podcasting — there’s no overhead.

It can be recorded on a terrible Skype line or meticulously crafted by an army of producers. You can do it for five listeners or five million. Do a five-episode miniseries or suddenly look at the calendar one day and realize you’ve been putting up an episode a week for five years.

My current podcast, RiYL, falls into the latter category. Episode 322 just posted this weekend. That’s a lifetime in podcast years, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s no way the show would have lasted this long had I not assembled the proper gear.

It’s true that doing the show has been an ongoing process of refining my setup, both in terms of recording hardware and the software workflow, but the core components have been in place for a while. A number of my more successful friends have invested thousands to build home studios that sound as professional as any NPR affiliate.

For me, however, the key has always been mobility. I’ve fine-tuned a podcasting rig that sounds good, but is small enough to slip into a laptop sleeve. Leave no trace, as the saying goes.

The motivation dates back to the show’s humble beginnings (though, for the record, the first few episodes were done over Skype as I was still figuring things out). I realized pretty early on that getting touring artists and musicians to come to my place in Queens (with a few exceptions) was going to be a non-starter.

Piecing together a lightweight rig has given me the flexibility to meet people where they are, be it a hotel room, bar or their PR rep’s conference room. And now that I travel pretty regularly for work, it means I can easily slip the setup into a carry-on, so I can meet guests in their hometowns.

Here’s a photo of upcoming guest Hannibal Buress, recorded in my hotel room in Lagos, Nigeria. My setup is placed gingerly atop my overturned suitcase on a coffee table. He’s clearly impressed.

The other thing the setup has helped me realize is that people’s expectations for professionalism has shifted considerably in recent decades. My rig is small and simple, but various guests have commented over the years that they’re impressed. The last person who interviewed them had them speak into their iPhone.

At the very least, this is certainly better than that.

It’s not the end-all, be-all, by any stretch of the imagination. This is just what has worked for me. Over the years, I’ve had plenty of people — guests and otherwise — ask me what I use. Also, in the wake of last week’s Spotify acquisition of Anchor and Gimlet, podcasts are, once again, the hot newness. So now seemed like as good a time as any to get this all down on paper.

TASCAM DR-40 4-Track Portable Digital Recorder ($170): This was my first acquisition and the one piece of hardware I’ve held onto through the duration of the show (though for the record, I’ve purchased it twice after an unfortunate incident with a lost backpack).

Zoom and Roland also make solid multi-track recorders that will probably be interchangeable for most. The key is finding a system you like that sports dual XLR mic inputs that you can monitor on the fly. They pretty much all have built-in mics, but you’re not going to want to rely on room mics for a podcast. It sounds like crap and it’s a nightmare to edit if you’ve got more than one speaker.

Recording works like a charm. The system records each mic to a left and right channel, which it saves as a WAV file on an SD card. Just make sure the mics are placed at a sufficient distance, so you don’t pick up too much cross talk.

Of course, here you’re limited to two mics. That’s been an issue at points when entire bands have wanted to join in on the fun. The aforementioned companies do make recorders with more inputs. Those are generally larger and a lot pricier, though.

Honorable mention here goes to the Rodecaster. The board is really great at what it does. We recorded an episode of TechCrunch Original Content on the thing, with it doing guest duties and producing in real time. The recent addition of multi-track recording makes this thing an absolute killer.

It has eight channels, including multiple mic inputs, triggerable sound pads and the ability to beam someone in via phone. If I was setting up a home studio on the cheap, I would shell out for one of these, no questions asked. That said, it’s just way too large for my current needs.

Weymic New Wm57 ($10): Okay, true story. Right after I bought the TASCAM, I invested in a pair of super-cheap mics. They sounded… OK, but the presentation was lacking. One afternoon, I went to Reggie Watts’ Brooklyn apartment to record an episode. I handed him a mic. He looked it over, moved it around in his hand a bit, then slyly unplugged it and reached into a drawer behind him, grabbed a mic and popped it on.

The guy knows from microphones.

My takeaway here is that presentation is important. Looks matter, as does weight. A microphone should have some heft to it. People’s expectations have lowered with regards to what an audio setup looks like, but you need good mics if pros are going to take you seriously.

I’ve since been through various mics, and lately I’ve settled on these things. For the record, they’re a wholesale knock-off of the Shure SM57 Cardioid Dynamic Microphone — the go-to microphone for podcasters. The SM57 is the thing I assume Marc Maron and Terry Gross would talk about if they had to share an Uber Pool to Silver Lake.

The Weymic looks nearly identical and sounds great for one-tenth the price. Don’t ask me how. And hey, I’m not exactly swimming in Casper ad revenue here. Also do yourself a favor and invest in a couple of foam windscreens to cut down on sibilance. You can get a bunch in a pack for cheap.

Universal Adjustable Desk Microphone Stand Portable Foldable Tripod (Two for $15): I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to add these to the repertoire. Guests jostle mics a lot during long interviews, and that stuff picks up. I’ve also had a number of older guests on the show, and asking them to hold a microphone for 45 minutes to an hour is just cruel.

These, picked up from Amazon, are super-cheap and fold up into nothing, making them perfect for my laptop-sleeve constraints. The only issues are: 1) They’re not great for super-tall guests. I recently had a member of the band Health on the show and ended up sticking the stand precariously atop a pile of several books; and 2) The screws loosen themselves like crazy for some reason, so I just purchased a pair of keychain screw drivers to keep them in check.

I pair all of that with a couple of six-foot XLR mic cables ($7 a piece for Amazon basics) and some velcro ties. Those fit nicely in the outside pocket of the laptop sleeve, along with backup batteries.

Audacity/Garage Band: Sometimes you just stick with the workflow you’ve got. I should probably upgrade to Adobe Audition (maybe this article will be what motivates me) one of these days, but I’ve been using Audacity for like 10 years at this point. It’s simple and it works fine for chopping up a show. That’s my biggest complaint with a number of the free apps like Anchor — they mostly suck when it comes to editing a show.

And editing is important. It’s true that another one of the wonderful things about podcasts is they can be as long or as short as you want, but everything can benefit from a little tightening up. I also spend a lot of time adjusting levels (often on the subway ride home). And make sure to record a little room tone to get rid of ambient noise in post.

After the show is edited, I export it as a single track and import it into my show template in Garage Band. That’s where I add the music beds, outros and the like.

Podbean: A couple of friends are launching a podcast soon. They asked me who I use for hosting. Podbean is something I found early on. I’m not sure I’d recommend the service, but I’m 300+ episodes deep at this point. There are a lot of options out there, so shop around a bit. Anchor is compelling for novices, including its built-in ad-servicing (though I’m a little wary of how the Spotify acquisition will play out) and a lot of my friends swear by Libsyn for more popular shows. Heck, even SoundCloud has a decent option.

Everyone has an embedded player and the means with which to syndicate to iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, et al.

I’ve found Podbean to be a bit clunky and the service has experienced a handful of outages. That said, recent additions have streamlined the program, and they’ve added some pretty decent analytics to the backend, so it’s definitely headed in the right direction. Once uploaded, I embed that into a Tumblr post.

Headliner: I’ve tried a number of speech visualizers for promoting the show. I found Anchor’s clunky. Wavve’s was decent, but they start charging you after your first 30-second clip. I only just started using Headliner this week, and it’s terrific. Easy to use, highly customizable and, best of all, free.

The transcriptions are okay for a free service (you’re going to have to clean them up) and the online editing tools are great. I think I’m sticking with this one for a while.

Additional shout-outs to Google Drive. The first thing I do after transferring files from my desktop is back them up here. It’s the one place where I’ve got all my files and has helped quite a bit with scheduling episodes.

YouTube is another recent experiment for me. I’ve been syndicating the show to all of the usual places, as mentioned above, but it recently occurred to me that people use the video platform to listen to audio programs. I asked a bunch of folks on Facebook and found it to be surprisingly popular. This will become increasingly important as more people purchase screen-sporting assistants like Google Home Hub and the Amazon Show. It’s a new thing for me and I’ve only got a handful of subscribers at the moment, but I’ll let you know how that goes.

I do still find myself recording remotely from time to time. Auto podcaster extraordinaire Kirsten recently introduced me to Zencastr, which is great for this purpose, recording each caller remotely and backing up those files to a server. If I’m using Skype, I go with the old standby, Ecamm’s Call Recorder, to record locally.

I’ve also become attached to Blue’s Raspberry USB mic for this purpose. It’s adorable and tiny, so you can stash it in a backpack for travel. It’s not the best-sounding mic, but it’s good for its size and it sounds a hell of a lot better than the company’s Yeti Nano. Rode’s got a company of models with optional windscreens I’ve been meaning to check out as well, but I’ve heard good things.

If you’re hip to any new tools you think I should check out, hit me up on Twitter at @bheater. I’m always looking for ways to step up my game.

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Spotify’s increased focus on podcasts in 2019 includes selling its own ads

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Having established itself as a top streaming service with now over 200 million users, Spotify this year is preparing to focus more of its attention on podcasts. The company plans bring its personalization technology to podcasts in order to make better recommendations, update its app’s interface so people can access podcasts more easily, and broker more exclusives with podcast creators. It’s also getting into the business of selling ads within podcasts, as a means of generating revenue from this increasingly popular form of audio programming.

In fact, Spotify has already begun to dabble in podcast ad sales, ahead of this larger push.

Spotify, we’ve learned, has been selling its own advertisements in its original podcasts since mid-2018 year, including in programs like Spotify Original “Amy Schumer Presents: 3 Girls, 1 Keith,” “The Joe Budden Podcast,” “Dissect,” “Showstopper,” and others. With more exclusives planned for the year ahead, the portion of Spotify’s ad business focused on podcasts will also grow.

The company appears to be taking a different approach to working with podcasters than it does with it comes to working with music artists.

Today, Spotify gives artists tools that help share their work and be discovered – it invested in distribution platform DistroKid, for example, and now lets artists submit tracks for playlist consideration. With podcasters, however, Spotify wants to either bring their voices in-house, or at least exclusively license their content.

“Over the last year, we become very focused on building out a great podcast universe,” said Head of Spotify Studios Courtney Holt, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week. “The first step was to make sure that we’ve got the world’s best podcasts on Spotify, and integrated the experience into the service in a way that allowed people to build habits and behavior there,” he said.

“What we started to see is that the types of podcasts that really were working on Spotify were ones where they were really authentic voices…so we just decided to invest more in those types of voices,” Holt added.

Spotify’s collection of originals has been steadily growing over the past year. Last August, for example, Spotify nabbed an exclusive deal with the “Joe Budden” podcast, which is aimed at hip-hop and rap culture fans, and launched its first branded podcast, “Ebb & Flow,” focused on hip-hop and R&B. Its full original lineup today also includes “Dissect,” Amy Schumer’s “3 Girls, 1 Keith,” “Mogul,” “The Rewind with Guy Raz,” “Showstopper,” “Unpacked,” “Crimetown” (Its first season was wide, second season is exclusive to Spotify), “UnderCover,” and “El Chapo: El Jefe y su Juicio.”

At CES, Spotify announced the addition of one more –  journalist Jemele Hill is coming Spotify with an exclusive podcast called “Unbothered,” which will feature high-profile guests in sports, music, politics, culture, and more.

In growing its collection of originals, the company found that podcasters who joined Spotify exclusively were actually able to grow their audience, despite leaving other distribution platforms.

For example, the Joe Budden podcast had its highest streaming day ever after joining Spotify.

This has led Spotify to believe that influencers in the podcast community will be able to bring their community with them when they become a Spotify exclusive, and then further grow their listener base by tapping into Spotify’s larger music user base and, soon, an improved recommendation system.

There are other perks for Spotify, too – when users come to Spotify and begin to listen to podcasts, they often then spend more time engaged with the app, it found.

“People who consume podcasts on Spotify are consuming more of Spotify – including music,” said Holt. “So we found that in increasing our [podcast] catalog and spending more time to make the user experience better, it wasn’t taking away from music, it was enhancing the overall time spent on the platform,” he noted.

While chasing exclusive deals to bring more original podcasts to Spotify will be a big initiative this year, Spotify will continue to offer its recently launched podcasts submission feature to everyone else.

With this sort of basic infrastructure in place, Spotify now wants to help users discover new podcasts and improve the listening experience.

One aspect of this will involve pointing listeners to other podcast content they may like.

For instance, Spotify could point Joe Budden fans to other podcasts about hip-hop and rap. It will also leverage its multi-year partnership with Samsung to allow listeners pick up where they left off in an episode as they move between different devices. And it will turn its personalization and recommendation technology to podcasts – including the ads in the podcasts themselves.

“Think about what we’ve done around music – the more understand you around the music you stream, the more we can personalize the ad experience. Now we can take that to podcasts,” said Brian Benedik, VP and Global Head of Advertising Sales at Spotify, when asked about the potential for Spotify selling ads in podcasts.

The company has been testing the waters with its own podcast ad sales since mid 2018, Benedik said. The sales are handled in-house by Spotify’s ad sales team for the time being.

Benedik had also appeared on a panel this week at CES, where he talked about the value of contextual advertising – meaning, ads that can be personalized to the user based on factors like mood, behavior and moments. This data could be appealing to podcast advertisers, as well.

But to scale its efforts around podcast ads, Spotify will need to invest in digital ad insertion technology. Benedik told us Spotify is currently deciding whether that’s something it wants to build in-house or acquire outright.

Spotify’s rival Pandora went the latter route. It closed on the acquisition of adtech company Adswizz in May 2018, then introduced capabilities for shorter, more personalized ads in August. By November, Pandora announced it was bringing its Genome technology to podcasts, which allowed for a recommendation system.

Now Spotify aims to catch up.

The addition of podcasts has reoriented Spotify’s focus as company, Holt said.

“We’re an audio company. We’re trying to be the world’s best audio service,” he told the audience at CES. “It’s a pure play for us. We’re seeing increased engagement; there’s great commercial opportunities from podcasting that we’ve never seen on the platform…And, obviously, exclusives are to give us something that makes the platform truly unique – to have people come to Spotify for something you can’t get anywhere else is the sort of cherry on top of that entire strategy,” Holt said.

Image credits: Spotify

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Podcast industry aims to better track listeners through new analytics tech called RAD

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Internet users are already being tracked to death, with ads that follow us around, search histories that are collected and stored, emails that report back to senders when they’ve been read, websites that know where you scrolled and what you clicked and much more. So naturally, the growing podcast industry wanted to find a way to collect more data of its own, too.

Yes, that’s right. Podcasts will now track detailed user behavior, too.

Today, NPR announced RAD, a new, open-sourced podcast analytics technology that was developed in partnership with nearly 30 companies from the podcasting industry. The technology aims to help publishers collect more comprehensive and standardized listening metrics from across platforms.

Specifically, the technology gives publishers — and therefore their advertisers, as well — access to a wide range of listener metrics, including downloads, starts and stops, completed ad or credit listens, partial ad or credit listens, ad or credit skips and content quartiles, the RAD website explains.

However, the technology stops short of offering detailed user profiles, and cannot be used to re-target or track listeners, the site notes. It’s still anonymized, aggregated statistics.

It’s worth pointing out that RAD is not the first time podcasters have been able to track engagement. Major platforms, including Apple’s Podcast Analytics, today offer granular and anonymized data, including listens.But NPR says that data requires “a great deal of manual analysis” as the stats aren’t standardized nor as complete as they could be. RAD is an attempt to change that, by offering a tracking mechanism everyone can use.

Already, RAD has a lot of support. In addition to being integrated into NPR’s own NPR One app, it has commitments from several others that will introduce the technology into their own products in 2019, including Acast, AdsWizz, ART19, Awesound, Blubrry Podcasting, Panoply, Omny Studio, Podtrac, PRI/PRX, RadioPublic, Triton Digital and WideOrbit.

Other companies that supported RAD and participated in its development include Cadence13, Edison Research, ESPN, Google, iHeartMedia, Libsyn, The New York Times, New York Public Radio and Wondery.

NPR says the NPR One app on Android supports RAD as of now, and its iOS app will do the same in 2019.

“Over the course of the past year, we have been refining these concepts and the technology in collaboration with some of the smartest people in podcasting from around the world,” said Joel Sucherman, vice president, New Platform Partnerships at NPR, in an announcement. “We needed to take painstaking care to prove out our commitment to the privacy of listeners, while providing a standard that the industry could rally around in our collective efforts to continue to evolve the podcasting space,” he said.

To use RAD technology, publishers will mark within their audio files certain points — like quartiles or some time markers, interview spots, sponsorship messages or ads — with RAD tags and indicate an analytics URL. A mobile app is configured to read the RAD tags and then, when listeners hit that spot in the file, that information is sent to the URL in an anonymized format.

The end result is that podcasters know just what parts of the audio file their listeners heard, and is able to track this at scale across platforms. (RAD is offering both Android and iOS SDKs.)

While there’s value in podcast data that goes beyond the download, not all are sold on technology.

Most notably, the developer behind the popular iOS podcast player app Overcast, Marco Arment, today publicly stated his app will not support any listener-tracking specs.

“I understand why huge podcast companies want more listener data, but there are zero advantages for listeners or app-makers,” Arment wrote in a tweet. “Podcasters get enough data from your IP address when you download episodes,” he said.

The developer also pointed out this sort of data collection required more work on the podcasters’ part and could become a GDPR liability, as well. (NPR tells us GDPR compliance is up to the mobile apps and analytics servers, as noted in the specs here.)

In addition to NPR’s use of RAD today, Podtrac has also now launched a beta program to show RAD data, which is open to interested publishers.

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Pandora’s Podcast Genome Project goes live for all

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Last month, Pandora announced it would soon be bringing its “Genome” technology to a new space outside of music: it would leverage a similar classification system to make podcast recommendations, too. Initially, the feature was only available to select users on mobile devices, ahead of a broader public launch. Today, Pandora says its Podcast Genome Project has gone live for all users.

Like Pandora’s Music Genome – its music information database capable of classifying songs across 450 different attributes — Pandora’s Podcast Genome Project is a cataloging system designed to evaluate content. But its focus is on audio programs instead of music.

The Podcast Genome Project can currently evaluate content across over 1,500 attributes, including MPAA ratings, production style, content type, host profile, and more, alongside other listener signals, like thumbs, skips, replays and others. It uses a combination of machine learning algorithms, natural language processing and collaborative filtering methods to help determine listener preferences, the company says.

Pandora then combines this data with human curation to make its podcast recommendations.

These recommendations are live now in the Pandora app’s “Browse” section, under the banner “Recommended Podcasts For You.” Podcasts will also be discoverable throughout the app in the Now Playing screen, search bar, in the podcast backstage passes, and in the episode backstage passes.

At launch, the app is aggregating over 100,000 podcast episodes in genres like News, True Crime, Sports, Comedy, Music, Business, Technology, Entertainment, Kids, Health and Science, the company adds.

Podcasters can also now ask to be included in Pandora’s app by filling out a form here.

Longer-term, a better recommendation system for podcasts could help Pandora as it becomes more integrated with its acquirer SiriusXM. The deal will likely bring SiriusXM’s exclusive programming to Pandora’s subscribers, which would greatly increase the number of audio programs available on its service. Putting the right programs in front of the most interested customers could then drive more people to upgrade to a paid subscription, impacting Pandora’s bottom line.


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Acast raises $35M to help podcasters make money

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Podcasting has grown tremendously in recent years, and a Stockholm-based company called Acast is looking to help all those podcasters make money.

Acast is announcing today that it has raised $35 million in Series C funding, bringing its total funding to more than $67 million. Investors in the round include AP1 (which manages some of the capital in Sweden’s national income pension system), as well as Swedbank Robur funds Ny Teknik and Microcap.

Ross Adams, who became Acast’s CEO last fall, told me that the money will allow Acast to expand, both in terms of its product offerings and the geographies where it operates.

The company has focused on bringing technology to the surprisingly old-fashioned world of podcast advertising. In fact, it pioneered the practice of dynamically inserting ads into podcasts — as opposed to the model where (as Adams put it), “When you listen to a five-year-old podcast, you’ll hear the host read a five-year-old ad.”

Earlier this year, it announced a partnership with the BBC, allowing the BBC’s podcasts to remain ad-free in the United Kingdom while inserting ads everywhere else.

“We don’t mind if your show is absolutely huge or absolutely tiny,” Adams said. “The model we have allows a serious mainstream publisher like the BBC to monetize — or a bedroom podcast hobbyist.”

Ross Adams

At the same time, Adams wants Acast to support other business models. It’s already experimenting with paid, premium content through its Acast+ app, but it sounds like there are more paid podcast products in the works: “We want to be that central point of monetization, [whether] they make money through advertising or they’re looking at premium offerings.”

As for geographic expansion, Acast says it launched in Ireland, New Zealand and Denmark this year. It also plans to grow in the United States, which currently represents 25 percent of all listens on the platform.

Acast is also looking to bring podcast monetization into new hardware — Adams said the company has spent much of the past year focused on the smart speaker market. Those speakers present new opportunities for content (Adams said it’s less about “longer-form storytelling” and more “short-form shows for your daily consumption in the morning”), and new challenges for advertising.

Adams is hoping that if Acast can solve those challenges, it won’t just be monetizing the smart home market, but also moving into cars and anywhere else you might find “voice-enabled technology.”

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