The wonkiest guy in podcasting
In the weeds with Nicholas Quah, the creepily prescient podcast observer who insists he’s just a regular human
Nicholas Quah knows podcasts.
This is an understatement akin to “Warren Buffett knows some stuff about investing.”
Quah, who writes a weekly newsletter about podcasts that is read by thousands of people who are interested in this burgeoning media sector, reports on the on-demand audio industry with tenacity.
The Brooklyn-based freelance reporter and consultant, 26, has appeared in The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, Wired, The Wall Street Journal and — of course — Nieman Lab, the project of Harvard University to help journalism figure itself out in the digital age. Nieman Lab syndicates his newsletter each week.
Quah says the open rate on his personal distribution list is about 65 percent to 75 percent and that he has a subscriber base of about 5,600 (He goes in about once a month to shave off the subscribers who aren’t engaging with the content, ensuring a very substantive audience for his work, he says.)
The Daily Dot last year heralded him as “the man telling the Internet what podcasts to listen to.”
Last month, Quah established himself as a particularly thoughtful voice during the brouhaha over an NPR memo about podcasts, which in part said that NPR shouldn’t tell people to actively download a podcast or where to find them.
If you follow this sort of thing, you know that some people lost their minds over that report, saying the memo represented the worst in the sort of slow-to-adapt thinking that has hampered legacy content producers in the digital age.
Quah wrote about 1,600 words on the matter, and was widely cited, saying in the end that the kerfuffle was largely overblown.
Having read his take on the latest in digital audio, I decided to check in with Quah last week to see how he is thinking about things these days. Spoiler alert, it’s about much more than podcasts.
What follows is a profile in two parts.
To get started, a few excerpts our phone conversation March 31. To finish, the (very lightly edited) transcript of a (very wonky) conversation about the future of digital audio.
On what is worrisome about digital audio today:
“The thing I’m most afraid of is we have a regression where the new entrants and new players aren’t able to justify the valuations, or are unable to justify their adaptations to the Internet and it ends up sliding back towards, you know, more conservative styles of audio distribution.”
On where the industry is going:
“Everything is sort of reconfiguring itself, but the amount of opportunity for people in mid- to early-career audio producers and reporters, I think, I’m relatively hopeful about the opportunities this new industry provides for those people.”
On finding the right cadence for news:
“Whatever that audio-first news structure is going to be is going to be in between the very high metabolism of Twitter but drastically further away from the spectrum, the end of the spectrum, of where podcasting is now.”
On opportunity for on-demand audio:
“It’s stunning to me that music consumption is an incredible part of a mobile device user’s life, and that the headphones are the principal accessory that comes bundled with a mobile device, and yet spoken audio and news audio and stuff like that is challenged in its ability to get to that user.”
On the need for more innovation in on-demand audio:
“It all still sounds like radio, it all still sounds like it’s designed for broadcast.”
Can you tell me something about yourself that maybe wouldn’t be immediately apparent to someone who’s reading your sort of professional roster?
I think something that might not be immediately clear is that, I don’t know how relevant this is, but I’m not American. I immigrated here. I actually came out here for college in ’08 and graduated in 2012 and kind of stuck around and I’m sort of a recent immigrant, so I think that accounts for the way I kind of like, I don’t know, I’ve always sort of felt very much like an outsider in most things, and so a lot of the work that I do, a lot of the research and analysis, a lot of the reporting work in the past has always sort of like come out through that sense of trying to understand the anthropology of the thing. Which I why, I don’t know, sometimes I re-read the old Hot Pod archives and I’m always struck by how I sort of, I tend to describe things that seem obvious to other people in a way that seems rather like bizarre and foreign. And that’s sort of a good shorthand for how I think in general. I guess that’s something that’s worth noting in a lot of ways.
I think maybe another thing to note also is I don’t really have a plan and I’m not really a guru, I’m just a person who just likes to figure out what’s happening on the bleeding edge and if no one’s giving me that job to do it, I’m more likely to figure out a way to do that by myself.
How did you get into all of this? What has drawn you to podcasts and why have you focused so much of your energy on this developing space?
I think it’s a confluence of two things, well three things actually. One is this, I’ve long been a fan of podcasts. I think I could mark it down since the beginning of college. I never really grew up around, so where I grew up there was no real, like, public radio supply there. There is just no such thing in Malaysia, which is where I’m from. And so the radio I got there was Top 40s, sort of sports talk radio, that kind of stuff.
And when I was in college I started running a whole lot, and I sort of stumbled onto podcasts. The very first ones that I sorta got into, you know, the sort of public radio staples: Radiolab, Planet Money, that kind of stuff. And also I started using it as a tool of education, and it made a lot of sense for the life that I lived. I was a very mobile person, I just respond more to stuff that comes in through my eardrums than stuff that comes through my eyeballs … at the time.
So I developed a really close relationship with it, and when I was in grad school, it wasn’t a particularly good time in my life and in a lot of ways I owe a lot of my sanity to my relationships with podcasts back then. So I’ve always had that love for a while.
And then when I was working at Business Insider at the time, it was November 2014, I was pretty bored at my job, and Serial kind of exploded and I sort of noticed a bunch of reporting on Serial, and whenever it sort of ran up to the place where the reporter tries to describe podcasts and talk about it, it always seems kinda, either dismissive or inaccurate as to the sort of historical legacy of social media and the culture around it, and I saw that. And folks kept reaching out to me knowing that I had been listening to podcasts all the time, asking what they should be listening to. So it was like enough of these people are emailing me, I’ll put a newsletter together. And also, being particularly bored, I was like, why don’t I sort of try to put a little gossip rag/blogroll together, so that was November 2014.
And I just kept doing it every week and it just got, like, it was really fun for a while and then I sort of started seeing things that were happening in the industry. People started reading it and reaching out to me, and I don’t know, that’s just the part of my brain that’s always attracted to sort of media reporting, or sort of just understanding the structures in media. Another thing I’m sort of hacking on the side for leisure is, just the rise of virtual reality, that kind of stuff that’s just on the bleeding edge is really interesting to me.
Where do you hope to take it from here?
That’s an excellent question, and it’s one that I haven’t really thought about. I launched like a small, paid membership part of it, it’s mostly a way to A, monetize and B, figure out who are the super fans of hot pod. I use it, I provide value by providing them with more technical essays on Fridays. I’m working on one right now to sort of define what an audio-first news operation would look like in the future. I think there is a space to build a good resource for the next generation of talent, people who are thinking really aggressively about what it means to bring audio to the 21st Century and people who want to transition their skill sets to that direction. I think there is an opportunity there. I’m not so sure yet, but we’ll see.
In your Nieman Lab prediction for this year, you said that a future in podcasting is not inevitable, that it’s going to be up to the creative people who are producing those things now and also the business end people trying to figure out a coherent strategy for this platform to mature. How are you feeling about that now since having written that at the beginning of the year?
The thing that does change is my definition of what I was focusing on when I used the word podcasting, right? I think it has, it literally means a very specific kind of distribution channel, but it is also shorthand for a newer culture of digital audio that sort of breaks from what we talk about when we talk about streaming, what we talk about when we talk about radio, broadcast and this and that.
I guess that is a thing that has evolved in my thinking there. When I say podcasting is not inevitable, I’m talking about sort of more a shift in audio information production, audio entertainment and news production into a more user-friendly, into an entity that serves listeners better that structurally maps onto the way the Internet works.
The thing I’m most afraid of is we have a regression where the new entrants and new players aren’t able to justify the valuations or are unable to justify their adaptations to the Internet and it ends up sliding back towards, you know, more conservative styles of audio distribution, which does not like portend towards, like, good journalism or good programming or good content.
I think, you know this is my personal opinion, I think the radio industry, not public radio, is largely garbage. There’s excesses in spending, there are programs, really sort of lazy programming and stuff that fits in empty slots in a drive-time scenario and it always feels like, just filler. And it’s an opportunity for really good, you know, innovations and adaptations to the Internet for audio, and I think that’s a thing that I think, I still think is not inevitable, I still think that we can evolve to a very lazy future, digital or not, and that’s a thing that I’m afraid of.
What are the most interesting developments, in your opinion, regarding on-demand audio and digital distribution of audio content?
This very second, which is not the same answer I would have given about a month and a half ago, is watching more media companies and publications of repute getting into the audio game. Like, this morning the New York Times announced that they were looking for an executive producer for a much larger audio unit in-house.
I’ve been very closely tracking stuff that the Washington Post has been doing, the stuff that you guys have been doing over at The Atlantic with your partnership with Marketplace through Quartz, you know. In the forefront of my mind, I think of the future of journalism and also the future of just good entertainment and stuff and so the first part of that, it’s being catered to, at least in a way that’s exciting me right now. I think a lot more journalistic institutions are taking audio a lot more seriously and finding that they can tell different kinds of stories, sort of generate a lot more impact, or different kinds of impact, through audio.
The other thing that’s interesting to me is sort of the trends of how the labor market is reconstructing itself with the emergence of new podcasting companies. I think we’re still at the inflection point of figuring out how this industry is going to look, like, five to ten years from now. I think right now, everything is sort of reconfiguring itself, but the amount of opportunity for people in mid- to early-career audio producers and reporters, I think, I’m relatively hopeful about the opportunities this new industry provides for those people. Even though I’m largely pessimistic of where we are right now, I think a lot of changes are really opening up good opportunities for the future. It’s just a question of whether people actually pull through with it and the industry follows through with those initiatives.
Do you have an image in your mind of where the industry could be, say, a year from today, or maybe even four years from today, in an ideal state? What is the trajectory leading toward?
I can give two versions of this answer. One is my ideal situation, which is really pie in the sky, is that the industry unfolds itself to two different kinds of audio companies. One, and I would put a company like Gimlet into this bucket, that perceives audio as a standalone experience of a prestige and quality level up to par [with] HBO or a New Yorker. One could make the argument that The New Yorker’s core product is in a different bucket than one that would have, let’s say, Quartz in it, let’s say Vox in it, that and vox.com and Buzzfeed. But those two different kinds of things exist, and I think that that difference, between The New Yorker on one hand, and like a Vox, Buzzfeed, Quartz on the other hand, I think that’s the kind of split that would be interesting to see, I want to see in the audio industry.
There is room for features, room for highly engaged stuff, and then there’s also room for the sort of rapid editorially alive news organization and content organizations that move at the metabolism of the contemporary Internet, I think that’s what, I’m hopeful that that’s what I want to see and I think that’s what we’re going to be headed to.
There are going to be different kinds of audio companies that make full use of the mobile device, that make the full use of the headphones. It’s stunning to me that music consumption is an incredible part of a mobile device user’s life, and that the headphones are the principal accessory that comes bundled with a mobile device and yet spoken audio and news audio and stuff like that is challenged in its ability to get to that user. I think that’s why my brain is going in that direction.
One of the things you’re talking about here is velocity, whether it be storytelling or news reporting, and this idea that potentially there’s this tension between on-demand audio and broadcast audio when it comes to delivering the news. For right now anyway, it seems to make a lot of sense that the kinds of content that are being distributed through on-demand audio are more inclined for listening any time, potentially evergreen in their nature and not so of-the-moment or on-the-news. What do you think would change that? Do you think there is an appetite for this fast metabolism of information?
It’s never going to be as quick as social video, like NowThis does for example. It’s never going to be as quick as a push notification. It’s never going to be as quick as a tweet. Because that would be mapping audio onto an infrastructure that is designed away from what makes audio audio. However, I kinda think it’s going to have, whatever that audio-first news structure is going to be is going to be in between the very high metabolism of Twitter but drastically further away from the spectrum, the end of the spectrum where podcasting is now, which is basically like a post box: I come in, I drop an episode, and then you come in whenever you expect me to drop an episode, maybe once a week once every two weeks, and then at my leisure I consume it whenever.
But I think that relationship, of knowing when the drops happen and the relationship of expecting when the supply comes and how the supply reacts to where you are as a listener in terms of what you want to consume, I think that’s sort of the variable that’s focused on. I think a good example is what Channel 33 does, the Bill Simmons podcast. I can check it every morning and I don’t know what I’m going to get in it, but I know generally it’s going to come out from the crew over at the Ringer and I know that they’re cooking up something that I don’t … I have no mapping in my head of what that’s going to be but I know it’s going to be interesting.
So this past week they dropped a straight-up documentary that I did not expect to come from them and yet now I’m inclined to check their feed a lot more just in case that thing pops up again. There’s something about making something inert more “ert” and giving people a reason to pay attention, I think that’s where it’s at. I really do think that the reason why we’re seeing no innovation in the feed, it’s not because the feed needs innovation, it’s because people coming in from radio are still using the feed as if it was radio and that’s super backwards to me. If there’s any shift in this, if there is any dynamism, it’s going to be in that relationship between the creator and the listener through that feed. I think that’s where the money is.
Something I keep coming back to, and I’m not the first person to make this argument, but I’m one of these people who like really believes in it. I think the limitations to the growth of podcasting is not, does not have anything to do with the technology, I think it has everything to do with the content. And I think there just isn’t enough high-quality material coming through the pipeline, to justify the magnitude of the hype that we’re seeing right now. So, that’s something that I don’t see get talked about very often, and I’m sort of fascinated to see where it all goes with respect to that framework.
Are you saying it’s not professionalized enough?
That’s definitely true, I think it’s not professionalized enough. But that’s not a fault, that’s not something I can fault the industry for, necessarily. But I will say that my main feeling, the main reason I feel this way. With this growth in people’s ability to consume audio content, I’m still seeing remarkably conservative attempts at programming, there isn’t braver, sort of initiatives to really fundamentally rethink what an audio show sounds like, it all still sounds like radio, it all still sounds like it’s designed for broadcast. The exciting stuff almost all comes from the fiction side, almost necessarily, and yeah, I mean, that is something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Like Serial Season 1 was a groundbreaking moment for all of us, and you know, problematic as it might be in terms of its ethics or whatever, it was the first time that I was genuinely excited about something from the podcast feed up to par with the way I was excited about “Game of Thrones” or “True Detective” or something like that. And, you know, that has larger questions about journalism, about the journalistic aspect of it, but like that, that should be the thing that people are focused on, getting people motivated enough to actually get into the media. I think that’s something that hasn’t really been touched upon that much.