Slate Backs Malcolm Gladwell Podcast, Hoping for 'Serial' Level Success

Company's Panoply Network Behind BBDO, GE Collaboration 'The Message'

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On Thursday, Malcolm Gladwell launched a podcast called "Revisionist History." The podcast, which Mr. Gladwell says he made in lieu of writing a book, re-examines past events that Mr. Gladwell thinks were misinterpreted the first time around. Even before anyone could listen to it, the 10-episode show was a hit. On Wednesday night, it was the top podcast series in iTunes, even though it consisted of nothing more than a three-minute introductory clip.

Last week, Mr. Gladwell visited the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan's Upper East Side to give a preview of the show's first episode, which examines the stories of 19th-century painter Elizabeth Thompson and Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia. They were victims of misogyny, Mr. Gladwell said. Before the reading, Mr. Gladwell sat in an armchair onstage, wearing a striped blazer, beltless jeans and European sneakers with aqua highlights. Jacob Weisberg, an old friend, former roommate, and chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, the company behind the podcast, warmed up the crowd.

Mr. Weisberg started by asking the 800 or so attendees a question. "Who here -- and don't be ashamed-- has never listened to a podcast?" he asked. A few sheepish hands went up. Mr. Weisberg suspected that there were many others who were being too shy to cop to their lack of experience. He had already distributed instructions of how to download a podcast, in the form of a handout placed on each seat in the auditorium: "Find the purple Podcasts app. It comes pre-installed, so you don't need to download it from the App Store."

We may be experiencing a so-called Golden Era of Podcasting, but even the medium's biggest boosters can't be sure that the average New York sophisticate knows what a podcast is. About 45% of Americans have never heard the term, according to Edison Research, and only 36% of people have listened to one.

When Mr. Weisberg first asked Mr. Gladwell to collaborate on a podcast, the author was skeptical. "But then I got into it," he said. He sees the project as a lark. Sure, it likely would have been more lucrative to bind up the podcast scripts and sell a million of them in airport bookstores, but that's not much of a challenge anymore for Malcolm Gladwell. "I didn't have a single involvement in the business side," he said. "I haven't even seen the contract."

The stakes are higher for the Slate Group. It sees Mr. Gladwell's star power as an essential component of the success of Panoply, the podcasting network it launched early last year. The network has some big hits on its roster -- Slate's Political and Culture Gabfests, best-selling author Gretchen Rubin's Happier, and the sci-fi podcast "The Message." The network produces podcasts for other companies in addition to making ones for Slate. "Revisionist History" is one of its buzziest productions to date, involving 10 producers, and an original composer.

Andy Bowers, Panoply's chief creative officer and its driving force, has been around the industry longer than almost anyone else. He's convinced that Mr. Gladwell's new show can bring in the type of listener who isn't quite sure how to download a podcast, while convincing new advertisers that the time has come to get in.

Mr. Gladwell's new show is also notable for its sponsor: Apple's iBooks, which bought all the advertising space for the show. Panoply executives said they think this will help drive attention towards the series, although they were vague about what exactly that would mean. Mr. Bowers did say that there was an unusually intense amount of interest from marketers to associate themselves with "Revisionist History." "I mean, you can't buy an ad in a Gladwell book," he said.

"Revisionist History" is the latest attempt to find the next "Serial," the blockbuster true-crime drama that unofficially launched the current podcasting renaissance when it became ridiculously popular in 2014. "Serial" made it seem like podcasting had finally arrived, even if statistics on consumption show a slow climb rather than a "Serial"-inspired jump.

About one in five American adults have listened to a podcast in the last month, and those that do listen tend to fall in pretty deep, consuming about five podcasts a week. The average listener is a man between the ages of 18 and 34, wealthier and better educated than your average American. That's a group that advertisers want, and podcasts demand attractive ad rates. The general range is between $20 and $100 for every 1,000 downloads, far higher than websites can hope to get for display advertising. Panoply declined to discuss specific ad rates, citing competitive reasons.

Most podcast advertising comes from direct response ads, which are predicated on the idea of making an immediate sale. Advertisers generally provide a special code during the broadcast, so they can measure the effectiveness of the ads on an episode. The big money in other media comes from so-called brand advertising. Panoply has about 25 brand advertisers such as T-Mobile and Purina, in addition to hundreds of direct response advertisers.

With advertiser interest and listeners growing, several companies want to exploit the trend. Gimlet, based in New York, and Radiotopia, also from New York, focus on creating their own content; the E.W. Scripps Company, based in Cincinnati, owns a range of podcasting-related properties that produce shows and sell ads for a wide network. Scripps also recently acquired Stitcher, one of the leading alternatives to Apple's iTunes app, the predominant platform for podcast consumption. Then there are startups like Art19 and Acast that build technology for podcasters. All of these companies are grappling with how to grow their audience, while also addressing shortcomings in the business model and available technology.

The Slate Group is trying to do everything all at once. It makes about half its money by taking a share of the advertising revenue of the 100 or so podcasts in its network from clients such as the Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated. The other half of its revenue comes from charging brands to make their own podcasts and promote them in Panoply's other shows.

At the low end, Panoply charges a brand $150,000 to produce and promote a podcast. The biggest productions reach into the seven digits. Panoply has also developed technology for inserting ads into podcasts, a major preoccupation among podcasting companies today. Panoply's product, called Megaphone, gives clients more information than they'd normally get through Apple's iTunes store. This is a selling point at a time when some podcasters' patience with Apple is wearing thin because of the lack of listener data the company provides.

More data could help podcasters bring in more revenue, a primary concern for what is currently a tiny industry. Almost all of the revenue being generated industrywide comes from advertising, and estimates for the total range from $35 million to $200 million annually. Taking the most optimistic stats, podcasting is less than one-sixtieth the size of the market for radio advertising. To think about it another way, the entire podcast industry makes about as much in a year as TV draws in 27 hours.

Slate's podcasting business started in a closet full of old board games in the summer of 2005. Mr. Bowers, then a senior editor at Slate, squeezed himself into the closet, which was in his Los Angeles apartment, set up a microphone and narrated a story that the website was publishing about shoplifting. He posted it on the web, along with an ad for the Chrysler 300.

Mr. Bowers seems like he would thrive in a job that consists of reading quietly to oneself. He's a tall, bald man who dresses as though he's trying to blend into the background. One person who knows him professionally said his first interactions with Mr. Bowers were at social events where Mr. Bowers was always standing by himself. He was surprised to learn that Mr. Bowers' job involved talking to people.

Like many professional podcasters, he started in public radio. Before joining Slate, Mr. Bowers worked as an NPR correspondent for about two decades. At Slate, his ambitions quickly outgrew his closet. Mr. Bowers began recruiting the website's writers to come to a studio in Washington, D.C. and chew the fat while he recorded them.

It was still a shoestring operation. For years, that Washington studio had an air conditioner that was too loud to leave on during recordings, so producers would run it on high before a show to cool the place down, then turn it off. By the end of a long session, guests would be damp with sweat.

By early 2014, Slate was running 15 podcasts, and other publishers were regularly calling Mr. Bowers seeking advice about starting their own. "We realized that they would try to jump into this," said Mr. Bowers. "Our choice was to let them come in as competitors or try to work with them."

That year Slate began planning to launch Panoply. Knowing that media companies didn't have a lot of spare cash lying around, the network was based on working entirely for a cut of whatever advertising revenue its shows could earn. For some clients, Panoply simply sold ads; for others it produced and promoted the shows itself. The idea was to create a modest, profitable business by the end of 2015.

Panoply grew far quicker than it expected. Bowers aimed to have 18 partner podcasts up by the end of 2015; they ended up with more than 60. Panoply's Chief Revenue Officer Matt Turck said the Gladwell podcast pushed the company over its revenue goal for this year, and that the business has already made 10 times the revenue it made from Slate's podcasts in 2014. (He declined to give specific numbers.) Like many a thriving startup, the promise of getting bigger than expected has pushed any discussion of turning a profit beyond the immediate horizon. The company has hired a wave of new employees and built new studios in Brooklyn and Washington -- with adequate climate control systems.

Last year, Panoply bought technology built by two Australian brothers that automatically drops new ads into old podcast episodes. The product is now called Megaphone, and in addition to letting clients to insert ads into their archives, Megaphone lets them serve different ads to people in different regions. Podcasters who use Megaphone can gather new demographic and behavioral information about their users, which they are desperate for. About two-thirds of podcast listening happens through iTunes, and Apple has made a point of limiting how much user data it collects and shares. Apple only tells producers how many people downloaded each episode, leaving them without a basic currency of online advertising.

Panoply also built a player that allows for podcasts to be embedded into websites. Mr. Bowers predicts that most podcast listening will continue to happen through iTunes, but thinks that Panoply's own tech can gather enough information to satisfy new advertisers. "They'll be like an opinion poll," he said. "Enough of a sample that we can infer things from."

People don't go into radio and podcast production to make advertisements, but it's hard to ignore that some of Panoply's most successful work to date are essentially feature-length commercials. Panoply's producers end up being advisers to advertisers about how to communicate with people in ways that won't annoy them.

Last year, BBDO, an advertising agency that works with General Electric, approached Panoply about doing a multi-part science fiction series about cryptographers deciphering a message from outer space. The idea was to make fiction that people would actually listen to, with GE's name attached. At first, people from GE weren't sure how to approach the project, according to Andy Goldberg, its chief creative officer. One camp wanted to sprinkle GE products throughout the story, because otherwise what would be the point. That idea was squashed. "That would lessen the storyline," said Goldberg.

Panoply rented a separate studio, and hired actors and a freelance writer to produce eight episodes: fifteen minute episodes, none of which featured a GE-branded jet engine or locomotive. Panoply timed the show to hit in between seasons of "Serial." In the end, about four million people subscribed, said Goldberg, and it was the top podcast in the iTunes store for three weeks in a row during its run.

It's not clear whether any industrial equipment will ever be sold as a result of the Internet-age radio drama, but everyone involved has declared it a success. There are currently discussions about selling the film rights. Mr. Goldberg is returning to Panoply to talk about the companies' next collaboration. "Unfortunately the bar is set really, really high," he said.

Mr. Turck predicts that "Revisionist History" could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode, with Mr. Gladwell providing star power and Apple giving support. That would match the best performance of "The Message."

"I don't know if there will ever be another 'Serial,' anything that explosive," said Mr. Turck. "But boy we've stacked the deck to give it a run for the money."

-- Bloomberg News

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