Holy S-, The New York Times Just Acquired Podcast Powerhouse Serial Productions

Photo: Serial Productions

Today, the New York Times formally announced that it will be acquiring Serial Productions, the spinoff studio from This American Life led by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig, and Neil Drumming. You might know it as the shop that houses, well, Serial, along with the 2017 hit S-Town. (The Wall Street Journal broke this story a few hours ago.)

That’s not all. In addition to the acquisition, the Times announced that it has entered “an ongoing creative and strategic alliance” with This American Life. This one’s a little complicated, so pay close attention: While Serial Productions will now be a New York Times property, This American Life will remain an independent operation, though this “strategic alliance” means that Serial Productions and This American Life will continue collaborating creatively. This arrangement is distinct for another reason: The longtime public-radio show and podcast will now be collaborating with the Times on co-marketing and advertising-sales efforts.

And that’s also not all. Squeezed into the press release is word of Serial Productions’ latest project, slated to drop on July 30: Nice White Parents, which features Chana Joffe-Walt examining the role that white parents play in the shaping of public education.

Okay, let’s go back to the acquisition. This is a stunning development, even though it’s been in the hopper for a while. The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin first drew attention to the possibility back in January, when he reported that Serial Productions was shopping around for a sale. The Times was the lone company he cited as a potential buyer. The possibility was raised again in a column by the Times’ own Ben Smith, published in early March, which reported that the studio was for sale at a $75 million valuation, though it was expected to go for much less. (Actual details of the deal size were not disclosed at this time. Believe me, I asked.)

I was, however, able to jump on the phone a few hours ago with Julie Snyder, Serial Productions’ CEO; Sam Dolnick, the Times’ assistant managing editor; and Stephanie Preiss, the Times’ VP of audio and TV, to talk about the development. Here’s what I learned: To begin with, the deal apparently came about organically, as the Times, working off the blockbuster successes of The Daily, sought to figure out what heights to climb next. “We have been enormous admirers of This American Life and Serial for a long time,” said Dolnick. He went on to say:

“Over the past year or so, as audio became more important to the Times, we started thinking: What could this look like? What’s the biggest swing we could take? So we started to talk with Ira Glass about This American Life and what kind of partnership that could look like. He pretty quickly introduced us to Sarah and Julie, and we started talking about possible arrangements, and it was clear from the beginning that we had a shared sense of journalistic values, a shared sense of mission, and the same kind of drive to tell these stories right now. So we tried to figure out the right way to tell these stories together, and this ended up being the way.”

When I asked if This American Life was ever on the table as an acquisition, it was a flat no. “Ira made it pretty clear that it was his company, that it was going really well, and that he wasn’t interested in selling,” said Dolnick.

For Serial Productions, the decision to sell fit neatly into its philosophical priorities. Snyder pointed to S-Town as a starting point in the way the team thought about what it wanted to do moving forward. “It felt exactly like something we wanted to be doing more of,” she said. “We wanted to keep on doing the Serial podcast, but we also felt like there were a lot of different types of stories that we wanted to pursue.”

But Snyder also noted that the team didn’t create Serial Productions with the typical intent of handling it as a conventional capitalistic enterprise. “We didn’t have start-up entrepreneurial visions of saying, ‘We want to be pumping out podcasts,’” she said. “We also weren’t the kind of thing where we were like, ‘Let’s set ourselves up to be acquired.’”

Their vision was to be a story-first company, but the managerial mechanics involved in expanding within that vision were constraining. Long having operated as a “one project at a time” kind of team, its members wanted to set things up such that they could publish more than one show every other year.

Beyond that, Snyder simply didn’t have much interest in running a company. “It’s not where I come from, you know?” she said. “I feel like I’m really good at supporting reporters and producers and helping them get the shows, but actually thinking about the company strategically was the type of thing that people would suggest to me, and I would feel like it all made sense, but I would always wonder, ‘Isn’t there someone else that could be thinking about this for us?’”

Hence the decision to sell to the Times, which would provide enough infrastructure so that she wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.

Once over at the Times, Serial Productions will be largely independent from the rest of the Times audio operation for now. “We’re thinking about Serial Productions as being adjacent to the Times newsroom,” said Dolnick. “Julie and her team have the next three to four projects already in flight — they have a full plate, and they’re moving fast — and their stories are going to come from the This American Life pool. The Daily and the Times audio team, on the other hand, are pulling more from the Times newsroom.”

He added, “Operationally, they’re going to be distinct for a while … As the partnership unfolds, I think we’re all excited about different kinds of collaborations that we can do, but that’s not day one.”

There’s one more piece worth exploring: whether this acquisition is part of an effort leading up to some sort of new paid audio product. The possibility of this was raised in Smith’s column from March, when he highlighted a strategic idea among some Times executives that a Serial Productions acquisition, bundled together with The Daily, could serve as the basis for something akin to the popular and revenue-generating NYT Cooking app. An “HBO of Podcasts,” as it were. The fact that the Times had made another audio-centric acquisition earlier this year — of Audm, a subscription audio platform that produces high-quality performed reads of magazine articles — only further supports the possibility that we might see such a gambit.

Stephanie Preiss, the Times’ VP of audio and TV, suggested that the value of Times audio is being best realized as a free product — at least for now. “I think what The Daily has taught us is that audio can help drive our consumer-subscription business by acting as an entry point for people to Times journalism … We are very interested in how we can add fuel to that fire,” Preiss said. “At the same time, audio is a great advertising business for us, and it’s a growing business.”

So there you have it: The legendary studio behind the one of the biggest podcasts of all time is going to the company that publishes one of the other biggest podcasts of all time. And while it might not end up amounting to some sort of paid audio product, this move nonetheless deeply contributes to the Times’ increasing power in the space. “We want to establish the Times as a real center of gravity for audio journalism, news, and storytelling,” said Dolnick. “Our goal is not to change Serial’s DNA at all. Our goal is to help them do more of what they want to do … For the people who love Serial — and there millions of them — the idea here is to have more Serials.”

I should note: This deal comes during a year that’s already rich with podcast acquisitions. In February, Spotify bought The Ringer, Bill Simmons’s podcast-first digital-media company, in a deal reportedly valued up to $250 million. In May, the longtime celebrity-to-podcast-pipeline facilitator PodcastOne was bought by a sorta-kinda music-streaming platform called LiveXLive for $18 million in an all-stock deal. And earlier this month, Stitcher switched hands from Scripps to SiriusXM in what has been the biggest podcast deal to date, at $320 million.

The volume of acquisitions is such that, with each deal, there tends to be a wave of uneasy groans and jokes throughout the podcast community about how consolidated and corporatized podcasting is becoming.

But I’d argue that acquiring Serial Productions is perhaps the most justifiable of all the recent deals. That organization occupied a complicated place within the context of the industry. It’s a legendary creative studio in what has become an incredibly hot market, and while there were increasing incentives to sell in order to capitalize on what may be a fleeting moment — and Serial Productions has every right to cash in on an industry it helped forge — it was also a situation in which there weren’t many potential buyers who both have deep pockets and a compatible editorial culture. Who else is out there? Spotify? SiriusXM?

In the Times, it found a logical fit. The Gray Lady offered a home that’s in line with Serial Productions’ editorial and journalistic values. The Times is a company that actually adds to Serial Productions’ brand, and perhaps most important, one that insulates it from the anxieties of wherever the Apple-Spotify podcast-platform war — to the extent that it exists, which it does, but not in the way I think people traditionally assume — goes.

Plus, it’s good validation. In our hypercapitalist American society, it is the unfortunate case that we tend to overemphasize acquisitions as successful legacy-sealing outcomes for any enterprise (whether or not it’s actually valuable), while flattening out the achievement of simply being successfully independent (shout-out to Radiotopia). Serial Productions — creator of a phenomenon that radically accelerated the growth of an entire medium — wanted to do more than it could independently. Now, it can.

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Holy S-, The New York Times Just Acquired Serial Productions