Google Home, podcasts, and Luminary

Last week, I wrote about how Google is now indexing podcast episodes and the potential ramifications for how people might discover and listen to podcasts based on that update.  I then realized that you can also play podcasts directly through Google Home, though interestingly it will only play the “latest” episode of any given podcast as opposed to a specific episode that you might want to hear.

Additionally, as with Google web search, you can listen to some podcasts that are otherwise only available via standalone mobile applications. For example, if you want to hear The Adam Carolla Show via mobile app, you have to download the standalone app that showcases this and other podcasts that are part of his network (I also wrote more about Carolla a few weeks back if you’re interested). However, you can access it via Google Home, but again, you’ll just get the latest content that’s available from that feed. This makes for a somewhat awkward listening experience in that the Carolla show releases each episode in two-part chunks these days, so by its nature the “latest” episode will always be the second half of a given “show.”

In any event, this is clearly another way in which Google is competing, perhaps indirectly for the time being, with streaming services such as Spotify, which are looking to leverage the growing interest in podcasts as part of their audio content offerings. And new podcast app Luminary is looking to distinguish itself by offering premium podcast content behind a paywall.

Speaking of Luminary, it has been heavily advertising on major podcasts of late. Its business model is set up to offer a number of “free” or ad supported podcasts that you can find on other competing podcast platforms but then provide paywalled access to “premium” podcasts — such as some impressive-looking offerings such as by Trevor Noah and a Bill Simmons-fronted Rewatchables1999 spin-off.

That said, after checking out Luminary’s mobile app, I really wonder if a significant number of people will cough up $7.99 per month to access its premium offerings. There’s the continued splintering of media across the board coupled with a renewed emphasis on paid subscriptions to support content business models, for one, ranging from television to news websites and now to podcasts. I’m also not sure that its strategy of allowing people to access only one episode of premium podcasts for free (and not the “latest” episode but one single episode total) before hitting the paywall will be effective.

In any event, it’s exciting to see the explosion of interest and investment in podcast content and companies, and so we’ll be seeing a lot of experimentation with business models and strategy for years to come.

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

The Game of Thrones podcast geek pyramid

This edition of On Media is about Game of Thrones-related podcast content specifically.

Even if you’re not a fan of the HBO show turned cultural phenomenon, you’re probably aware that we’re now in the final stretch of episodes — in fact, the series finale will debut on May 19th.

And if you are a fan as I am, you’re probably binge reading and listening to as much GoT stuff as you can because, you know, it’s cool and all. And it’s probably one of the very last true “water cooler shows” that we’re going to see for a long, long time.

With that in mind, here’s a quick and handy guide to finding the right “level” of GoT podcasting content, based on your level of geekery with relation to the show. All of these podcasts are part of The Ringer network, which produces a remarkable array of shows, of which I’ll have to get into more fully in another edition.

Apex-of-the Geeky-Pyramid Level: Binge Mode 
Hosted by “Mother of Dragons” Mallory Rubin and “Grand Maester” Jason Concepcion, these two are my pop culture geek spirit guides. In each episode, they go deep for around two hours, parsing through the episode, how it relates to the series as a whole, the books (which themselves are quite dense and include a Silmarillon-like backstory and history), and fan and media expectations.

They’re also scholars of the art of fantasy storytelling and don’t hold back at all when and where they feel that the show comes up short. For example, there’s a lot of focus of late on how Game of Thrones may or may not pay enough attention to the core fantasy and magical underpinnings of the story.

They are also freaking hilarious. If you love Game of Thrones and a sigil for House Geek lurks in your soul, check out Binge Mode.

And if you’re a Harry Potter fan, there’s an oceanic archive of stuff that Binge Mode has produced as well that you’ll want to check out.

Mid-level Geekery: The Watch 
Overall, The Watch is my favorite pop culture podcast. Usually, it’s pretty TV-centric but will also do some film and music stuff. Lately, there has been a Game of Thrones-centered episode each week that’s really fun as well. Hosted by Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, this podcast has a great adoration for Game of Thrones while making sure to note its successes and failings with expert analysis.

Low-level Geekery: The Bill Simmons Podcast 
This is predominantly a sports podcast, so don’t be fooled, please (though Simmons will interview non-sports figures semi-regularly as well). That said, they’ve been doing a very funny segment called “Throne Game” at the end of episodes of late, in which Simmons and his guests (typically Ryen Russillo or Joe House) run through the most recent episode for 5-10 minutes from an extremely casual fan’s standpoint. This yields ridiculously funny bits such as how the dragons should wear gender neutral-colored collars to tell one another apart, and how Bronn and The Hound’s PER (= Player Efficiency Rating, a sports analytics term) is extremely high.

I’ll be sad when GoT is over, but as the Drowned God would say, “What is dead may never die.”

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

How should we value digital media? (+ behind the scenes of The Berlin Files!)

Tribune Publishing has a wacky, turbulent, and soap operatic history (if you have any interest in this kind of stuff, Ken Doctor at Nieman Lab is indispensable). At the time that I worked there — and it always seems to be changing — Trib owned a bunch of newspapers, including Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun. I worked out of the LA Times building in downtown Los Angeles, a grand and historic structure that you see featured in more movies and TV shows than you might realize — recent seasons of Bosch and American Crime Story leap to mind, for example. Sadly, the LA Times (now decoupled from Trib and under the ownership of billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong) recently moved its headquarters all the way over to El Segundo, but that’s a story for a different time.

I helped to manage digital registration and subscription tools (i.e. login and paywall stuff) while I was there. It was challenging and interesting, and I got to work with some of the brightest and coolest people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around. It also gave me the opportunity to think a lot about the exchange of value between publishers who produce content — news content in this case, heavily focused on the printed word but also lots of pictures and some video — and readers.

The Internet of course helped to scramble what was once a pretty straight forward business model. With so much news content now available on the Internet for free — some of which is of a very high quality — how do publishers get people to actually pay for news, or for written content at all?

Coming from a background in blogging and co-owning a blogging-centric company (Blogcritics), I was acutely aware of how hard it is to gain attention (read = eyeballs or website traffic) to content even when it’s available for free. Equally hard is monetization (read = making money) based upon a non-paying audience, which requires, at the least, millions of monthly page views to have any hope of generating anything close to real money via advertising revenue.

“Tip jars” started showing up on blogs at some point as a way to allow readers to voluntarily and directly support the publisher’s efforts. Other experiments pop up from time to time, such as Dutch publisher Blendle’s deployment of “micropayments,” which essentially allow readers to make small payments per article that they view.

These days, many large publishers are looking to the paid subscription model as the key to revenue growth as there’s a general recognition that the digital advertising economy is inherently volatile. And paying one subscription to gain access to an aggregation of news sources — such as Apple’s recent Apple News+ launch — may point the way forward for some publishers as well.

But the truth and reality is that no one knows how things are going to play out and how publishing is going to stay viable in the long term. There are weighty things at play here, such as the value of journalism as a public good, and how writers and creators of all kinds should be compensated for their knowledge and output.

You’re probably not shocked to learn that all of the above is partially why I became interested in launching an e-mail newsletter. The expansive and flexible format, coupled with the relative “intimacy” of e-mail, is appealing to me in a digital world awash in the noise of social media and the difficulty of drawing people to one document that has the temerity to cover more than one topic at one time. I realized that there are very similar reasons that I’m also obsessed with podcasts. A great long form newsletter or podcast conversation gives you a feeling of closeness with the writer/speaker(s) in a way that you don’t get with other media formats.

One of the more frequent questions I get about the newsletter is how long it takes to write. The short answer is that I really don’t know. I’ve gotten more efficient at integrating the writing of it into my other activities, which has helped some. And I’ve also become a little bit more organized in not necessarily chasing every story that catches my interest during the week (though it may appear that way at times!). A week typically goes as follows:

  • Sunday: Usually I don’t do much with the newsletter. As a football fan, this fits rather well, but because I’m a New York Giants fan, maybe not so much.
  • Monday-Wednesday: Lots and lots of reading. As much time as it takes to write this newsletter, I spend far more in scouring the webs for interesting stuff. As I find things that I think might fit — and over time I’m filing most stories under media/tech, pop culture, or politics (mainly 2020 electoral machinations) — I save them and perhaps make a few notes.

My two main tools for writing the newsletter, by the way, are e-mail and Evernote. It’s pretty bare bones, but it works for me. When I find stories that I want to read later, I’ll often e-mail them to myself and then use my inbox as a clearinghouse at the end of the week. Gmail’s “snooze” tool is a killer feature as it allows me to “punt” anything that I don’t need to look at immediately. It’s a fantastic organizing tool.

  • Thursday-Friday: I’m trying to get what I’ve assembled into some kind of shape here, seeing what I have a lot of, where I might want to do a little more digging, and starting to flesh out what I want to say about the topics I’ve decided to cover.
  • Saturday: Production day! First, I make a go at getting to “inbox zero” (see; the “snooze” thing that I mention above), and then I mow through the mess I’ve made in Evernote to assemble a rough draft, during which I’ll play around with the layout, make some cuts and additions, and get it close-ish to the shape it’ll take as its final form. I then move the copy from Evernote into Mailchimp, where there’s a bunch of grunt work involved with adding links and such, but also gives me the chance to do some additional polish. Finally, I send a test version of the newsletter to myself and do a final read through, which serves as a proof read and opportunity to do fact checking (I try very hard to be accurate whenever/wherever possible, though I’m positive I will get things wrong from time to time!). And then, finally, I schedule it for publication on Sunday.

So, yeah, there’s some stuff involved. I’ve come to understand that I put the time in because I enjoy it. I try to create something each week that I myself would want to read. I find the weekly “production deadline” that I’ve set for myself is a good and motivating thing, and I also believe that a consistent publishing schedule is important in many ways.

Early on, I landed on scheduling publication for Sunday mornings with the thought that this newsletter is akin to the Sunday print newspaper that so many of us grew up with. It’s long, it’s ruminative, and you can read the parts that are interesting to you and skim over the parts that aren’t.

The fact that I’m hearing so many nice things from y’all is incredibly gratifying as well.

I started writing this On Media section in part because of the name change to The Berlin Files, but also because of Siobhan Thompson, one of my favorite follows on Twitter (for more Siobhan, see Tweets of the Week below). I saw her mention that you can “buy her a coffee” via a site called Ko-fi, which got me intrigued. Basically, the idea is that Ko-fi makes it easy to send three dollars (or multiples thereof) to anyone, including creators of stuff that you enjoy, so that they can purchase some caffeination to keep the good stuff a-rolling.

It’s not only established, brand name publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic that are scrambling around to find a sustainable business model, of course. The “little guys” have been getting crushed by the whims of Google and Facebook policies and the increasingly difficult challenge of obtaining new readers without a highly paid full time staff and/or spending a king’s ransom of coin on paid marketing efforts.

I loved Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, which was a successful effort around a subscriber-backed publication focused on the output of writer/journalist/pundit Sullivan. Sadly (for us, not so much for Andy), Sullivan shut down the project due to burnout from the ruthless blogging schedule that he had set for himself.

More recently, sites like Patreon (which my brain keeps wanting to turn into Peloton for some reason) are a natural evolution of the “crowd sourced” movement. So whereas Kickstarter is crowd sourcing for projects and products, Patreon is stepping in so that creators can “develop a direct relationship with your biggest fans and generate predictable, recurring revenue from your creative work.”

So Ko-fi and Patreon are not so different than the tip jars of old (and if you want to go really old school, the concept of artistic patronage extends at least as far back as the Renaissance and Italian city-states) and can be thought of modern experiments in the exchange of value between publishers (or “content creators”) and people who dig on what they’re creating.

On that note, I set up my own Ko-fi page as an experiment. If you want to buy me a cup of joe, you can (anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of the stuff), but you are under no obligation!

As The Dana Gould Hour, one of my favorite podcasts, likes to say of itself: FREE…. AND WORTH IT!

A few other quick notes on podcasting.

I read this piece, “Are podcasts killing music or just wasting our time?” and found it to be cranky and out of tune with what’s happening in this booming space.

As I mention above, podcasting is a great format because it’s intimate and flexible and asynchronous/on demand. Episodes can be long or short, and conversations become a “theater of the mind” that you can enjoy while you’re mowing the lawn or driving across town.

Also, can’t people find it within themselves to listen to both talky podcasts and music? Not at the same time, of course, but I do indeed think this is possible.

Finally, Mark Zuckerberg has launched a podcast called Tech & Society with Mark Zuckerberg. I started listening and maybe got 35 seconds in. My review: Zuckerberg comes across as an entity with a computer in his mind designed by aliens. The computer is immensely powerful and does an incredible job of feeding the Zuckerberg host form with the words and sounds so as to appear as a relatable human who just happens to run one of the largest and most powerful technology companies of all time.

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

Henry Rollins interview on Joey Diaz’ Church of What’s Happening Now

Ever since I saw Henry Rollins give a spoken word performance in the mid-1990s, I’ve been a huge fan of his many talents. He walked out onto the stage with carrots shoved into his nostrils. I’m a sucker for a good sight gag, okay?

He’s truly a seeker and traveler of the world, and goes to many countries alone that most Americans and Westerners will never see. He’s also funny, interesting, introspective, and unnervingly polite. Pair him with the gruff, hurricane force comedian that is Joey Diaz, and it’s an hour-plus of pure podcasting delight. Check it here on Diaz’s Church of What’s Happening Now podcast.

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.