November, 2018

Trends in Podcasting: Cults and Cult Leaders

This is a sort-of follow up to yesterday’s piece on daily news podcasts. It may become an occasional series.

In March this year, Netflix launched a documentary series called Wild Wild Country. It’s a six part series exploring an Indian guru and his followers in a county in deepest Oregon.

There’s no obvious way to see how successful the series was, but like Making A Murderer before it, it definitely caught the cultural zeitgeist. A popular documentary series exploring one story in great detail.

Now I’m sure it’s coincidence, but there have since been something of a string of podcasts based around cult leaders that have since come along. Of course, the cult subject matter is fascinating to any kind of documentary maker. Why would people follow a cult leader and their sometimes devastating belief systems?

Fairly soon after Wild Wild Country launched, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast series launched a 5 part series on Bikram Choudhrey – he of Bikram yoga fame. Not quite the same thing as Wild Wild Country, but there are definitely similarities. Both were gurus originating in India. The series launched in May, and its production pre-dated Wild, Wild Country. Indeed in an episode on the making of the series they talked about the issues surrounding two similarly themed programmes coming out at the same time. It was simply a coincidence.

Last week, as the BBC launched its new Sounds app, they also launched a new podcast from the Five Live team that had previously made Beyond Reasonable Doubt. That previous podcast was about the murder of Kathleen Peterson, and told the story of Michael Peterson who was charged with her murder. This is the same story that had been told in a TV documentary series, The Staircase, a series recently continued by Netflix.

The same radio team has now made End of Days, an eight episode series about David Koresh, the cult leader in Waco, Texas and the tragic siege in 1993. Specifically, it looks at the 30 Britons who were part of his group.

The podcast is initially a BBC Sounds exclusive – so strictly speaking, it’s not actually a podcast just yet. The BBC says that it will be made available on all other podcasting platforms at the end of the month, after a period of exclusivity on BBC Sounds. All eight episodes are available to listen to now for UK audiences.

I suspect that, again, this podcast has been long in the making, and it’s just coincidence that it followed so swiftly on the heals of Wild Wild Country.

But then, another new podcast has just launched from Slate. Standoff is a podcast about the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992. This wasn’t of the same scale as the Waco siege a year later, but it’s no doubt an interesting story. Slate is releasing this podcast on a weekly schedule.

As I say, it’s quite probably an accident that we’ve had a slew of podcasts on religious cult leaders all coming within a few months of one another. Given the popularity of true crime, it’s likely that podcast producers have been scouring the true crime bookshelves in search of interesting subjects, and there have been plenty of books and TV movies on all of these subjects.

It’s also notable that many of these stories happened in the early nineties or earlier, and therefore aren’t quite as well known but a millennial, podcast-consuming generation.

When Beyond Reasonable Doubt was first released, I mentioned to a colleague that it didn’t appeal to me since I’d already seen the extensive TV documentary series on BBC Four. I wondered why the same story had been chosen for the podcast. My colleague pointed out that for many of the audience for this podcast, this was a new story for them, and they probably weren’t BBC Four viewers. And it remains true that while some of these series are exploring things older listeners may already know about, for many more, these are new stories.

Trends in Podcasting: News Podcasts

In January last year, The New York Times launched a new podcast called The Daily. Spinning off to an extent from what the paper had been doing during the 2016 Presidential election, The Daily quickly developed a following. With a strong voice – both authorial and audible – in Michael Barbaro, it grew quickly. For a certain demographic, it became a must listen.

The Daily is excellent at digging into stories that The New York Times has covered in that day’s paper. A usual episode will deal with one or perhaps two stories, speaking with the Times’ journalists involved, and using clips and other archive material to give the story colour. The production quality is excellent. It’ll end with a summary of other things you need to know. The podcast is released early in the morning US time, so it’s available to listen on listeners’ commutes.

The Daily is by no means the first attempt at a daily news podcast. Lots of broadcasters have been doing lots of news things for an awfully long time. Many of them were spin-offs of radio programmes, but there were also standalone podcasts including ones from major newspapers like The Guardian. And there are certainly popular news podcasts. The Global News Podcast from the BBC World Service is the BBC’s single biggest podcast in terms of downloads, by a significant margin.

But somehow The Daily took off when others haven’t (or at least hadn’t).

Since its launch, The Daily has also become a syndicated public radio series, with episodes airing on a number of public radio stations after 4pm the same day, allowing it to remain a podcast-first property. Meanwhile the FX channel has ordered 30 episodes of TV version called The Weekly, with episodes going onto Hulu the day after broadcast. The series is due to start later this year. All in all, The Daily has become a very multimedia property for The New York Times.

To nobody’s great surprise, lots of other people want to get into the mix.

Recently The Guardian announced that it was launching a new daily news podcast presented by Anushka Asthana. Today in Focus has just launched. As with The Daily, Today in Focus concentrates on a single big story, although it is also carrying a second supplemental story too. In the first week Today in Focus has concentrated on Brazil’s new far right president, and the upcoming mid-term elections. The podcast is available early each morning, in time to be listened to for the morning commute.

The Guardian’s podcast managed to launch the same week that the BBC launched it’s new daily news podcast – Beyond Today. This launched at the same time as BBC Sounds, the big new audio app was formally launched by the BBC (it has been available in a public beta for a few months now). 

Beyond Today also follows the well-trodden path of concentrating on a single story. And as with Today in Focus, the podcasts tend to be around 20 minutes in length (The Daily tends to run twenty-something minutes a day). 

In the first week Beyond Today had episodes about Britain’s finances, ahead (or in fact just after) the budget, a very sad story about an Iraqi Instagrammer, middle class drug use (Although I think that episode missed a trick concentrating largely on a dealer and a real addict. It should have looked more closely at general users.), WhatsApp and a piece about who makes the news with Amol Rajan. Incidentally, although Rajan sometimes feels a little over-exposed appearing everywhere from The One Show on BBC1 to The Media Show on Radio 4, this episode is worth a listen, since it examines a real class issue in the media which often gets overlooked in issues of representation and diversity.

The one thing I’m slightly curious about is the name. When I first heard the name, I thought that it was a Today programme spin-off. But it’s not really, in that it has its own presenters – Tina Daheley and Matthew Price – and that it doesn’t sound at all like it’d appear on the Today programme. That said, I believe excerpts have indeed aired on Today this week. But I’d actually say that in tone, it’s closer to Five Live rather than Radio 4.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Slate has been running What Next, a

Interestingly, both What Next and Slate’s other daily podcast, The Gist, get published later in the day rather than earlier.

Earlier this year, Vox launched its own competitor,Today, Explained which it very much pitches as a more fun version of The Daily. You won’t be surprised to learn that it runs around 20 minutes. So you can maybe listen to three of these daily news podcasts if your commute lasts an hour!

Today, Explained is definitely more casual than some of the others, although the stories are always interesting. In the last week it has run episodes on white hat hackers (i.e. hacking for good, often identifying vulnerabilities and reporting them before bad guys can use this), universal basic income and fracking in Colorado amongst others.

Elsewhere, HotPod alerts us to The Washington Post hiring producers for its own upcoming daily podcast. It already has a daily political podcast – The Daily 202’s Big Idea which has been running for a while now. 

These are by no means the only news podcasts of course. There are plenty of news podcasts out there. But many of these are more like traditional news programmes. 

The BBC, for example, makes available in podcast form several of its flagship news programmes including the World At One and The Six O’Clock News from Radio 4, and Newshour from the World Service. All of these are the same as the broadcast versions.

The BBC’s flagship news programme domestically, is the Today programme. But that has a rather odd podcast presence. The radio programme runs for three hours Monday to Friday, so is too big to simply put out as a podcast – at least, not if you want people to listen.

Instead, Today publishes 3-4 separate podcasts a day. The first is inevitably the business news of the day, while the remaining 2-3 are based on segments of the programme, or gather together different segments on the same news story. The issue here is that the offering feels very piecemeal, and there’s little urgency in publishing the podcasts. Given the importance of the 8.10am interview – usually with a leading politician – the podcast may not appear until late morning, if at all. (Also, I’d love the podcast to lose the phrase, “You can listen to more free content from Today…” for obvious reasons.)

Of course the success of The Daily is in part due to it being available in time for listeners’ commute, so simply re-purposing morning news radio programmes leaves podcast rebroadcasts of radio news programmes at a slight disadvantage. But then, you probably shouldn’t be using podcasts to get “breaking news.”

As long as producers realise that they’re not trying to compete with 24 hour news channels that are rushing to break news, then podcasting publishing timescales can work well.

Publications like The Financial Times and The Economist do publish regular news programmes, but they have more weekly than daily output. Perhaps the closest equivalent I know of in UK radio is the BBC World Service’s Business Daily which is a Monday to Friday radio show that is nicely re-edited into a daily podcast. It’s business in its very broadest, and like The Daily has a deep dive into a different subject each day.

Could LBC do something interesting with Eddie Mair? A sharply edited 15-20 minute version of his 2 hour radio show? For some reason, there doesn’t yet appear to be an Eddie Mair podcast at all. LBC has had good success with viral videos, but I’m not sure that’s true in the podcast world. Interestingly, LBC is now winding down its paid-for download operation in advance of a new app that will let people listen-again, no doubt with targeted audio ads.

There is certainly room for a UK-focused daily podcast, and I’m sure other outlets aside from The Guardian and the BBC are working on them. I shall be listening.

[Update: Brett blogs about news podcasts and highlights a CBC called Front Burner.]

Note that these are my personal views, and do not reflect those of my employer.

Things I Hate on News Sites

I’m something of a news junkie, and I spend a lot of time reading stories on a reasonably wide range of news sites. I pay for a number of those sites, but appreciate that advertising revenues alone aren’t enough to support any sites – with the possible exception of the very largest.

But there are a number of “features” that we find on many news sites that I find incredibly annoying. This is by no means a complete list!

Video only stories

Depending on what day of the week it is, video is either in or out of vogue. When Facebook was paying everyone to do Facebook Live videos, many sites instantly set up video units to supply these. Then Facebook fell out of love with video and they stopped paying, so everyone stopped making all those videos. Then Snapchat came along, and video was back in the ascendancy. Then it wasn’t. Now we have Facebook Watch and something that nobody is watching called IGTV.

Anyway, I especially hate it when a “story” is published that consists only of a video. The thing is, I can read a lot faster than I can watch a video. I would say that 9 times out of 10, I bail out at this point. No matter how interested I am in the story – I don’t watch the video.

Of course those same videos have subtitles which some have dubbed the return of silent cinema, since producers know we don’t always have access to headphones at time of watching.

But just write the story below the video and give me the choice of either medium!

Music on Videos

Sometimes there are news videos that either don’t have sound at all (perhaps dash-cam footage), or are packaged up to include music. For rights reasons, commercial music (i.e. music you might recognise) can’t be used. So we get library music – that is, music that can be paid for once with no further rights issues arising. That’s useful in the digital realm.

There’s perfectly good library music of course – but it takes time to dig out. More often than not, we get generic “muzak” and it’s just awful. Worse are the videos where the person who made them isn’t aware of sound levels and mixes the music too loudly.

Music can be a very powerful part of a video, but used badly  it draws attention to itself and is just awful.

Unnecessary pictures

There’s a certain daily newspaper site that’s worst at this. Any article they publish includes large numbers of mostly irrelevant photos. Here’s an article about someone. Here are ten photos of that person when a maximum of one was required.

And because that site has been successful, others have mirrored it.

Creating Pages Where There’s No Story

This is common in the breaking news environment. You see a Tweet that might say something like “Politician John Smith has resigned – [URL]”

You click through to the URL to discover that there’s no more story than the Tweet contained. Now I realise that in due course, the newsroom will build out that story and add more detail and context. And I also realise that just because I’m clicking the link at time of initial publication, others may be clicking later. But if you have no further information, why not send a second Tweet when you can offer more details? I’ll be more inclined to click through that way.

The danger otherwise is that I’ll assume all your breaking news links are empty and won’t click. Yet sometimes, the story has been written ahead of time, and the release of it has been carefully timed. E.g. a big investigative piece. If my learned behaviour is not to click the link on breaking news, then you’re not getting me to read a story when you have actually published it in detail!

Creating Pages for Stories That Aren’t Stories At All

I’ve written about this before, but there are two key examples of these stories which can be summarised as:

“What time is the World Cup Final?” and

“Who is Oskar Schlemmer?”

What both of these are doing is relying on the fact that Google prioritises news sites in their search results. So if a “respectable” news publisher has written a piece on “What time the World Cup Final starts” then it’ll get in that news carousel at the top. News sites all know that people will be Googling basic information like this, and so they write a news story to get the clicks. The answer to a question like this should simply be a time. But that’s not good enough for Google’s algorithm, so a writer puts together 500 words on the World Cup final, which somewhere includes the kick off time.

Google has countered this to some extent with its own top level search results for basic information, but it doesn’t stop the news sites.

Needless to say that such “stories” do not end up in print products.

The second example above is from a recent Google Doodle – those cartoons that Google regularly place on their home page where their logo would sit. They invariably celebrate the anniversary of someone interesting, and clicking through on the doodle will take you to a page of search results.

More often than not, the best result is probably the Wikipedia page for that person. But again, if a news site writes a piece about the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, then that ends up at the top of the search results page. When a viewer clicks through.

I can only assume that it’s someone’s job to monitor Google around midnight to see if they’ve put a Doodle up, and if they have, bash out a quick “news” story – probably based solely on their Wikipedia page for background info.

Taboola, Outbrain et al

I loathe these sites. Really I do. The problem is that they’re crack cocaine for news sites, offering both revenues and clicks.

In essence, they’re those “Around the Web” boxes you get at the bottom of news stories from often incredibly respectable sites. They offer supposed further reading opportunities and have a list of stories. But those stories are invariably the most salacious and often misleading stories around. Somehow the murky world of digital advertising means that the economics work. Dubious sites claiming to offer cheap iPhones or whatever, pay these companies to promote their sites of little merit. Outbrain or Taboola pay the host sites on actually quite good rates – that’s why so many sites use them.

There was a great Reply All episode a few months back that told one person’s sad story which was being used by these clickbait organisations for their gain. They couldn’t get the story taken down. But the resulting episode really explained how these “chumbox” services work.

What’s interesting is that these companies do offer more premium versions with less clickbait, but that few organisations seem to take this option.

And I do know that they pay handsomely for those boxes, so news sites invariably keep them up despite dragging down the overall quality of the page.

“Feedback” Stories

Something aired on television and people have opinions on it. Perhaps an actor took his top off on a period drama, or a celebrity did a disgusting challenge in the “jungle.” A story needs to be written, and some junior reporter trawls Twitter looking for comments that back up whatever angle they’re taking. This is particularly the case for any BBC-bashing story, because no matter what, there will always be someone who has a view on Twitter that meets the needs of the writer.

And so we get stories with random members of the public saying things that support whatever thesis the publication is trying to present.

Twitter in Celebrity Death Reports

This is what happens. Someone famous dies. A story is put together. If they’re really famous and really old, then an obituary might already be ready. But there’s the general news story about their death to write. News site writers instantly trawl Twitter and Instagram looking for other famous people’s nice words about the person who has died.

And there lies the problem.

All too often, the first people to comment are not necessarily the people you’d want to hear from. A famous old actor dies, and someone who was knocked out in week 2 of Strictly quickly Tweets their thoughts. I’m not saying that the thoughts of said failed dancer aren’t genuine, it’s just that they’re not someone who’s opinion I’m truly interested in.

All too often the stories are filled with the remembrances from whichever celebrities have Tweeted first rather than looking for the dead person’s peers or family members.