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The Media Takes Another Look at Caliphate

Photo: The New York TImes

Last month’s rollout of Sway, the new interview podcast led by Kara Swisher, marked the beginning of a new chapter for New York Times’ adventures with podcasting, as it serves as the first high-profile launch to emerge from the organization’s revamped efforts to build a meaningful audio presence around its valuable Opinion section.

Sway isn’t the first podcast to come from under the Times Opinion banner, of course. That honor goes to The Argument, a gabfest-style conversational podcast that originally featured Times Opinion writers Michelle Goldberg, Ross Douthat, and David Leonhardt behind the mic. (Leonhardt has since been swapped for Frank Bruni, after the former was tapped to be the “host and anchor” of its new Morning newsletter effort.) Production for The Argument was initially outsourced to Transmitter Media when the show first launched in late 2018, which wasn’t an atypical arrangement for the organization at the time. Other Times podcasts, like Still Processing and Modern Love, had at various points started out as external productions, whether by co-production or outsourcing, but as the prominence of the Times’ audio operations have grown over the years, all of those productions were eventually brought in-house. Furthermore, in the case of The Argument and the Times’ general interests around Opinion Audio, they’ve gone ahead and assembled an entirely new team to push the enterprise forward.

In March, the organization hired Paula Szuchman to head up the new audio division. Formerly the VP of New Show Development at WNYC Studios, Szuchman is credited with developing 2 Dope Queens, Nancy, Sooo Many White Guys, and 10 Things That Scare Me, among other programs in the Studios portfolio. Since joining the Times, she has gone on to assemble an eight-person team to staff the new Opinion Audio team, half of which were drafted from WNYC.

This new Opinion Audio team is kept distinct from the original Times Audio team that’s attached to the newsroom, a structure that mimics the traditional separation between News and Opinion. It’s an arrangement that’s internally important for many news organizations, though it should be said that it’s a distinction that’s not always super clear to the audience. This will likely be a fault line to watch.

It won’t be the only one. As the audio lead for Times Opinion, Paula Szuchman holds what is probably one of the most interesting and daunting jobs in the podcast business right now. On the one hand, she’s tasked with building an entirely new audio division that runs adjacent to the New York Times’ origins audio division, which has come to be generally admired from the creation of a genuine phenomenon in The Daily — last said to be averaging about two million downloads per weekday episode — and nowadays operating at a level where it’s become an credible target for legitimate criticism. (We’ll dig into the latest on that later.)

And on the other hand, Szuchman is also tasked with translating the New York Times Opinion Section into an effective audio operation. From the outside looking in, there seem to be vanishingly few spaces in American media that routinely inspire more debate, heckling, and rancor than Times Opinion… which, additionally, has gone through some amount of tumult in recent months. This past summer alone saw the section weathering a staff uproar over the controversial publication of Republican senator Tom Cotton’s “send in the troops to quell democratic protest!” op-ed, which led to the resignation of a top editor, along with the loud departure of Bari Weiss, the controversial provocateur columnist.

All of which is to say, it’s an exceedingly tricky time to re-imagine the New York Times Opinion section, with its structural purpose of presenting a range of perspectives during an exceptionally volatile and combative era. (I should acknowledge at this point: at least some of the controversies surrounding the Opinion section has to do with the strained notions of “balancing perspectives.” There’s a lot more context and debate out there around this specific note, some of which you can find here, here, and here.) It’s tricky to a point that I can’t help but to imagine that if I were in Szuchman’s position, I’d probably be way too hung up on how the job seems like a no-win proposition to me personally. If I’m not able to make Times Opinion Audio shows that are widely-consumed, provocative, and relevant, then I’ve failed at the role. But if I’m successful at that task, then we’re talking about a decent chance of me having to routinely weather various shitstorms that I probably had a hand in stoking.

Of course, Szuchman is obviously not me, and she is in fact a veteran media professional. When we spoke about her vision for Times Opinion Audio a few weeks ago, she was cautious with her words, deliberate and pensive. Szuchman told me that her mandate is to create shows that would “expand the notion of what people think about when they think about Times Opinion.” Some of this will involve innovations in format, even conventional ones like the way the recently launched Sway has taken the interview format to really interesting places. Some of this will also involve weaving through and around editorial mix, which has traditionally leaned on politics rounded out with dashes of everything else drawing from a robust roster of popular staff voices and an active freelance pipeline seeking contributions from outside writers. “The thing that’s really exciting to me about Opinion is that it’s so expansive,” said Szuchman. “We have the standards of fairness and accuracy that the newsroom does, but we can expand into different directions.”

But I imagine some of this should also need to involve some interrogation of what it means to be a source of diverse perspectives — and proper provocation — in this specific moment we’re living in. Perhaps there is a way to do that in the podcast format without necessarily replicating practices or structures that lend towards explosive flurries on social media. Perhaps doing so requires leaning deep to the affordances of long-form audio, said to be more accommodating towards nuance, complexity, and ambiguity. (Unless, of course, it’s marketed on the web in ways that can be misconstrued or weaponized, as discussed in my column last week on Switched On Pop’s run-in with the right-wing internet.) And perhaps Szuchman is the right person to figure all that out.

I asked Szuchman if she was worried about any of that: the weight, the volatility, the risks. Again, I was provided with a professional’s response. “It definitely does not worry me,” she said. “I’m being honest here: I find this whole endeavor energizing, because I have the institutional value and machinery of the Times behind me.”

Meanwhile… I would remiss if I wrote about the Times’ expansionary audio ambitions at this very moment without also talking about the on-going controversies surrounding Caliphate, the Times’ award-winning audio series from 2018, which is now entering its third week of rough headlines.

To recap: on September 25, Canadian authorities arrested a man on the charge of falsely portraying himself as a former ISIS member. That man, Shehroze Chaudry, is believed to be the individual known as “Abu Huzayfah,” the primary subject of Caliphate whose supposed account of life as an ISIS member provides the series with its catalyst and narrative backbone.

Rukmini Callimachi, who reported and hosted Caliphate, stood by her work in the wake of the arrest, as did the Times. However, the following week, the organization announced that it would be opening a “fresh examination” into the audio documentary’s reporting. That decision was followed by several pieces, including one from The Daily Beast and multiple columns from The Washington Post’s media critic Erik Wemple, highlighting various lines of criticism that have been made against Callimachi’s work, both from within and beyond the Times, which portrayed her as having a tendency towards sensationalism and inaccuracy in the service of a narrative (among other things).

Some of the critiques against Callimachi aren’t new. Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at the Post, had written about complaints made about Callimachi’s reporting back when Sullivan was still the public editor at the Times, and she additionally expressed in a recent Twitter thread that she felt at least some of the criticism against Callimachi comes “from resentment/jealousy, and that there’s schadenfreude involved here, not without a hint of sexism.”

Anyway, the deepest dive into the issue so far has come, ouroboritically, from Ben Smith, the Times’ own media columnist, whose most recent Sunday column dug into some of the circumstances, process, and criticism around Caliphate and Callimachi’s reporting. It’s a dense piece that layers together a bunch of different threads and raises a ton of questions: What does this suggest about the audio team’s standards? What are the priorities when it comes to producing these narratives? But the most eye-catching contention in the column, at least for me, is this: Smith argues that Callimachi’s storytelling approach is ultimately resonant with a “more profound shift” that’s been happening at the organization that’s seeing it evolve “from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.” Given that, it is perhaps valid to perceive Callimachi’s reporting approach — at least, in the manner described by her critics — as being essentially consistent with the demands of this new incentive structure. “My reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support,” Smith wrote.

It’s all a bit of a mess, to put things lightly, and we haven’t seen the last of this story. For what it’s worth — and separate from the question of whether Callimachi’s reporting was truly accurate or merely utilitarian towards some predetermined narrative, an evaluation I’ve leave up to actual journalists — I continue to think that Caliphate, as it currently stands, is still a worthwhile listen, though the line of criticism depicting the series to be sensationalistic is definitely striking. Additionally, there are some aspects of this controversy that remind me of the long-running tension between journalism and documentary (see here and here for an extremely basic entryway into the conversation), along with questions about a narrative point of view. I can’t quite put my finger on how this all fits together just yet, but this thread does feel somewhat germane to the issue. Not in a way that solves the ethical dimension of this situation, but as a way to better understand the intent of the work itself.

News, broadly…

Death, Sex, and Money is staging a four day “Audio We Love” festival this week, which comes as an expansion of a show recommendation feature that the podcast has been running in their newsletters. The fest involves dropping an episode from a different podcast in the DSM feed today, tomorrow, and Thursday, and it culminates with a live Zoom show on Friday. More info here.

From The Markup: “Is your favorite podcast tracking you?” Nothing super new here, but it’s a helpful check-in on a long-running tension in the podcast business.

Apparently, the “” and “” domains have been purchased by… Amazon?

SiriusXM is said to be close to a new deal with Howard Stern, according to Bloomberg… or maybe not that close?

For The New Yorker, Rachel Syme profiles You’re Wrong About.

This is great — from Eater: “Your Favorite New Podcasters Are Already Bay Area Food Stars.” Extra shout-out to Extra Spicy, which is currently in my regular rotation.

The WGA Audio Alliance

On Sunday, the Writers Guild of America East announced that it has begun organizing within the scripted podcast space — “scripted podcast” largely meaning fiction podcasts, a nomenclature that borrows from the “scripted series” terminology from the television world — through the launch of a new initiative called the WGA Audio Alliance.

“As large companies funnel more and more money towards scripted podcasts, we believe that the writers who make those podcasts possible should receive fair compensation, pension and health benefits, and credit for their work,” says the WGA Audio Alliance website. “As production companies look to the independent community for the next big hit, we want to be sure that scripted podcast writers at all levels know their worth in advance of any negotiations.”

The WGA Audio Alliance’s organizing strategy appears to largely revolve around a push for greater Guild coverage over scripted podcast deals and projects. Coverage is rooted in the implementation guild-sanctioned contract called the New Media Agreement, which insists on protections like fair and timely payment, creator participation in the returns from any derivative products, and health benefits, among other things. The alliance has also established a database for scripted audio writers.

The formation of this alliance is the latest effort in the WGAE’s push into organizing within the podcast and on-demand audio space. The labor union has previously facilitated unionizing efforts at Gimlet Media, The Ringer, and Parcast. (For more background on the broader labor movement picture, check out this interview we ran with WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson back in August.)

A head-turning development, though I’m a little curious as to why the WGA Audio Alliance isn’t more formally structured to accommodate makers of both fiction and non-fiction podcast series. Seems to me that there’s decent overlap in needs when it comes to negotiating with larger companies, and the potential for a wider blanket of solidarity is always nice.

Anyway, you can read up on the alliance on its official website.

In tomorrow’s Servant of Pod So, there’s been a whole lot of New York Times in one newsletter about podcasts, and I’m afraid I have one more piece to give you. Kara Swisher is on the show this week, and she joins me to talk about the launch of Sway, her new Times Opinion podcast. (Yep, the timing of the column and the episode was intentional. The Caliphate sub-column, though, not so much.)

Now, I’m a huge fan of Swisher’s work, having followed it for almost the entirety of my professional life. And so it was a real pleasure to speak with Swisher about what she’s trying to do with Sway — commandeering it as a vessel, essentially, to explore the notion of power, who has it, who doesn’t, how it’s derived, how it’s expressed, how it’s wielded, how it’s refuted, and so on. Swisher’s interest in power is obviously rooted in her years as “Silicon Valley’s most feared and well-liked journalist” (per New York Magazine, of course), which put her in a position to closely report on and document some incredibly, outrageously, and ludicrously powerful people on this planet. But with this new series, she’s hoping to explore and reframe conventional ideas about power, in part by bringing on guests that one wouldn’t naturally think of when you think of its premise. Which isn’t to say that you wouldn’t expect the obvious types to show up: Nancy Pelosi, Elon Musk, and Gavin Newsom were the first three guests on the show.

Anyway, I really valued this interview, particularly somewhere in the back half of the episode, when we started talking about the role that theater played in her life. In many ways, it made me grasp a little better how she views — and understands — the distinctly modern nature of power.

You can find Servant of Pod on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or the great assortment of third-party podcast apps that are hooked up to the open publishing ecosystem. Desktop listening is also recommended. Share, leave a review, so on.

Data Conscious Listening

By Caroline Crampton

Earlier this year, when I was writing about the BBC World Service’s new podcast slate aimed at listeners in Africa, I was reminded of a factor in the growth of the medium that we don’t talk very much about in relation to the US or Europe anymore: the price of mobile data relative to income. For emerging podcast markets across Africa and Asia, this can matter a lot, so I figured it’s worth looking a bit more into the state of that factor and what options publishers have to account for it.

Let’s pause briefly at this point to acknowledge why the price of mobile data doesn’t exactly tell the whole story here. For instance: the most comprehensive global survey I could find shows that one of the priciest places in the world to use mobile internet on your phone is actually Canada, where on average one gigabyte (GB) of data will cost $12.55. The cheapest in the world is India, with an average per-GB cost of $0.09.

There are a lot of other metrics to take into account when looking at this. Broadband infrastructure is a major one, since it can determine whether people have access to reliable and regular WiFi, and so is GDP per capita. The World Bank shows that the GDP per capita in Canada in 2019 was $46,194.70, while in India in the same year it was $2,104.10. To understand how mobile data impacts the growth of podcasting, then, we need to think about spending on mobile data as a proportion of an overall household budget.

In regions of the world where lots of people have historically had to think carefully how they use their data, the audio picture is naturally different than in areas where streaming while away from WiFi can be done without a second thought. Podcasting in general grows more slowly in such places: for instance, the inaugural Infinite Dial report in South Africa in 2019 showed that podcast listening in the country was 19 per cent, less than half of the 50 per cent the US recorded on the same question in the same year. Smartphone ownership in South Africa is actually slightly higher than in the US, as it happens (88 to 83 per cent), another indicator that it is the connectivity that is the barrier beyond anything else.

India is a fascinating case study in this regard, since it has very recently transitioned away from high data prices and audio growth has gathered pace as a result. An expanding and highly competitive telecoms market has sent the cost of data there plummeting in the last few years to its current very low level. Even taking into account lower average wages, streaming is now much more popular, especially among those with long daily commutes. Spotify launched in India in February 2019, competing with homegrown platforms JioSaavn and Gaana, and has scooped up exclusive podcasts aimed at, among other audiences, Bollywood and cricket fans.

So what options are there for publishers who hope to build an audience in a place where listeners face data constraints? Well, the most effective is also the simplest: keeping episodes short and file sizes small. Kim Chakanetsa, host of weekly current affairs podcast The Comb, talked to me recently about how this had been an important factor for the team at BBC Africa when evolving the format for this recently launched show. Although they wanted to dive deeply into individual stories and do more reporting than might fit in a radio bulletin, they also felt it necessary to keep the episodes at 20 minutes or under.

Alternative or additional distribution systems can help too — there are some great examples of podcasts that distribute their audio files via the messaging app Whatsapp, which is a popular way of sending voice notes and can be set only to download when within range of WiFi. What’s Crap on WhatsApp? is a South African fact-checking podcast that combats the spread of misinformation on the platform with short monthly investigative updates that are available just by adding a phone number in the app. Bengali network Rebel Radio is also using Whatsapp to distribute their shows in India, having found that the ability to quickly forward an episode to friends is invaluable for growing an audience.

One option that I particularly like are “call-to-listen” services like Dial-a-Podcast or Bullhorn that assign your show a phone number which, when called, will play it down the phone line. Even in places where data is expensive phone plans will often offer unlimited or extremely cheap call minutes, which makes audio more accessible. There’s also been a resurgence of this technology being used for live events in the past few months, with churches also turning to dial in services during lockdown to broadcast services for those who don’t use or can’t afford video calls.

In short: it behooves publishers not to forget about how much listeners might be paying for mobile data, especially when planning to launch or promote a show in a part of the world where streaming is still expensive. Folks in the US and Europe might be accustomed to thinking that the way we use our phones is the default for everybody, but even the most fleeting glimpse at the stats suggests that’s very far from being the case.

The Media Takes Another Look at Caliphate