Among the Betas: Unpacking the New York Times Audio App

After a string of early breathtaking successes, the New York Times audio department — like its audio app — seems to be struggling to find its place in the subscription bundle 

The New York Times’s audio department has long seemed an impenetrable black box, but this reporter has for the last three months participated as a beta tester for the New York Times Audio app, presenting an opportunity to, if not break inside the black box, at the very least, get a sense of the shape of what’s inside. When the new app was announced last October, The Fine Print wondered what it could be for. After using the app and responding to its designer’s surveys and queries, one thing is abundantly clear: The Times audio department doesn’t seem to yet know, either. Their app, which The Times describes as a “new listening experience we are testing,” seems to take all of their various audio efforts — from podcasts, like The Daily, Sway, and The Argument, to narrated articles it acquired via Audm to the entire archive of This American Life — throw it at the wall, and, through user metrics and surveys, figure out what works and, therefore, what lies ahead for the app and, one supposes, Times audio generally.

This reporter filled out the beta tester sign-up form back in December — only to completely forget about it until she received an email noting her selection in late February. The app is not your typical podcast streamer, more like a potpourri of all the audio assets which The Times happens to currently control. There is a deep archive of every podcast The Times has ever released, even those that haven’t been updated in ages, like Rabbit Hole, an eight-part series hosted by tech columnist Kevin Roose that ran from April to June 2020. (One notable omission: Caliphate, the podcast series that The Times said “did not meet our standards for accuracy” but continues to distribute on its own site and other podcast services.) The app also features lots of audio that did not start as Times productions: an archive of This American Life episodes (which has traditionally only been available on its website and not on any streaming service) and narrated articles produced by Audm from other publications, such as New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jonesare featured prominently.

After sounding its initial call for beta testers in October, The Times has been very deliberate about calling this effort an experimental one. In its 2021 fourth quarterly report, in a section of the report regarding building audience engagement, the company said it plans to “develop new audio programming and experiment in audio product.” One new format created for the beta is what it calls “shorts” and “quick listens.” While some are just segments of This American Life, others are narrated recipes from Times Cooking or a cross between a narrated article and an inside look at the story with its writer. A number of those shorter listens, including readings of articles from several years ago, are somewhat outdated. It gives a sense that launching an audio app did not mean The New York Times was going to invest in producing new material for it just yet.

It’s not surprising that The Times is proceeding with caution as it tries to keep listeners happy. The audio department has come a long way since it launched The Daily in January 2017. It’s added numerous other shows, many of which, like Sway with Kara Swisher and The Ezra Klein Show, are produced by the opinion section. But things have not gone off without a hitch. The department has struggled to replicate the runaway success of The Daily, though it appears to be trying anew with the recent announcement that political reporter Astead Herndon will host a new, untitled politics show meant to “complement the essential politics coverage already happening on The Daily.” The relationship with This America Life is nebulous, and Serial Productions has released just two new series since its acquisition was announced in 2020 — the second and most recent of which, The Trojan Horse Affair, had been in the works for five years, well before the deal with The Times, before it premiered in February. Turnover in the audio department has been high, including the departure of The Daily co-founder and producer Theo Balcomb.

While CEO Meredith Kopit Levien attributed increased ad revenue in the latest quarterly report to an “expanded audio product portfolio,” the Audio app is not meant to reach a wide audience. The sign-up requires filling out a survey documenting your streaming habits, what kind of devices you have, what outlets you rely on for news, and the like. They wanted people who are avid podcast listeners and New York Times readers. But, despite that pickiness (or maybe because of it), it sometimes seems like they are desperate for more testers. Last March, in ads on episodes of The Daily, The Ezra Klein Show, and even This American Life, The Times made another big push for more beta testers, but the survey was the same as it was in their first call for testers five months ago.

Some of the questions it asks approved beta testers are what one would expect — whether listeners are able to find something to listen to consistently, how it squares up with Spotify, Netflix, NPR member stations, and various other streaming platforms, the list goes on. But more telling are questions like, “How would you feel about no longer being able to use the Beta app?” and “If a $5 subscription were required to access the Beta app, how likely would you be to subscribe?”

The Times seems eager to please its flock of beta testers. About six weeks ago, the app crashed a few times for this reporter, who was trying to learn about Joe Manchin’s coal dealings on The Daily. After sending a report about the crash that morning, the following day, an email was sent to beta testers noting that a few people had experienced this problem and that it had been fixed. The team has also responded to numerous feature requests from testers, most notably, a sleep timer.

Surveys have also hinted at the digital subscription bundles which have become the grand business strategy for The Times as of late. Audio app beta tester questionnaires have included inquiries about whether having access to archived content was something that was of value to listeners. Since The Times has added the entire This American Life collection to the beta, it seems that they are trying to gauge just how beneficial the company’s “strategic alliance” with the show is — that is to say, they are wondering whether that partnership, on top of the more concrete one with Serial, will be financially valuable.

Which pieces of The Times’s audio war chest will remain are, at this point, honestly anyone’s guess — and that includes The Times itself. Spurred on by early forays that succeeded wildly, The Times now has a formidable arsenal of audio assets at its disposal, but with very little unifying purpose tying them together. It sometimes seems that The Times struggles to decide whether to regain its footing in audio by returning to its roots or striking out for new territory. Either way, it is unsure where it will land.