January 26, 2016

Radio aficionados and die-hard fans of longform journalism often cite the fall of 2014 as the moment the mainstream media finally began paying attention to podcasting.

As “Serial” attained widespread popularity among casual radio listeners, general interest publications like New York and The New York Times published pieces that placed the true crime broadcast in the vanguard of a breakout trend that had finally transcended “nerd curio” and ushered in a “great podcast renaissance.”

All the sudden attention seemed a bit strange to Nick Quah, who was then a 25-year-old working as a research associate at Business Insider. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, podcasts had buoyed him during a bout of depression and remained a fixture in his life after graduation. He thought he could do a better job covering the burgeoning industry. So, in his spare time, he launched an email newsletter called Hot Pod — a name he conceived after knocking back a few drinks with his roommate.

“It just felt like there was a lot missing,” Quah said. “Why were there developments in podcasting? Why were there developments in podcasting culture? Where did “Serial” come from? ..I approached it from a criticism standpoint at first and then expanded into more business-side stuff.”

The timing, combined with Quah’s insouciant tone and steady stream of GIF-garnished scooplets, was just right. Fifty-seven weekly editions later, the newsletter now has thousands of subscribers, an open rate that far outstrips the industry average and a firm grip on a business that has undergone transformational change since he began chronicling it more than a year ago.

The growth in total subscribers — which still number less than 10,000 — combined with the higher-than-average open rate, are an indicator that there might be a market for expanded coverage of podcasting, Quah said. That’s why he announced this morning plans to leave his job managing audience development for the podcast network Panoply and turn his newsletter into a “sustainable publication” focused entirely on the business of podcasting.

Subscribers to Hot Pod will continue to receive weekly updates on the vagaries of the industry, including important personnel moves, the debut of new companies and the introduction of technologies that change the business. But they’ll also have the option of paying a fee to receive more frequent updates and analysis from Quah.

“I really want to create a space in which people who are thinking about improving, expanding and maturing in this area have a common space to come together and think together,” Quah said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to cultivate with Hot Pod in the last couple of months. And I felt like I couldn’t do it without jumping off and doing it full-time and being independent because I’m an employee of one of these companies.”

With today’s announcement, Quah joins the ranks of a select group of media entrepreneurs who have struck out on their own to convert scoops and analysis delivered through a newsletter into a steady stream of income. They include Ben Thompson, the consultant behind the tech newsletter Stratechery and Luke Timmerman, a former reporter for Bloomberg News who runs the biotechnology newsletter The Timmerman Report. Both make some of their work available for free — Timmerman at Forbes and STAT, Thompson on his website — and offer subscribers frequent tidbits of analysis and news for a marginal fee.

The ultimate goal, Quah says, is to glean enough paying subscribers to put together a livelihood. By quitting his job at Panoply, he plans to free up enough time to become a more diligent observer of the podcasting industry and distance himself professionally from a company that has a stake in the podcasting business. By owning a narrow sliver of coverage, he hopes to distinguish himself from competitors who cover the media industry writ large.

But even within his own small bailiwick, Quah has competition. The recent podcast boom has been accompanied by heightened interest among large, general interest news organizations and at least one niche publication. Podster, a new magazine from Shelf Media, just published its first issue. Startup, an offering from the podcasting network Gimlet Media, just finished up a short season covering the triumphs and travails of its own fledgling business. And there’s no shortage of tech publications that pay close attention to the minutiae of anything Apple-related, including podcasting.

Despite this competition and the financial pressures that come with quitting his job, Quah says he’s willing to give entrepreneurship a shot, even if it doesn’t work out. He’s got some money saved and says he’s young enough to try something else if the whole scheme comes crashing down.

“I think it feels like everything in podcasting is moving a lot quicker, and we’re going to hit some kind of tipping point,” Quah said. “And I want to be an outsider and cover that when it happens.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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