“It just happened that everything needed to come out within the first few months of this year,” Marlon Bishop, the VP of Content Development at Futuro Studios, told me recently. “It’s exciting, though. Gives us a chance to make a big splash, maybe get noticed.”
Well, consider the splash noticed. Futuro Studios seems to be everywhere at the moment, a natural outcome of having lined up a string of buzzy show launches in quick succession. This past month, the team rolled out two new productions: Anything For Selena, a personal documentary on the cultural icon Selena Quintanilla hosted by WBUR senior editor Maria Garcia, and Norco 80, an adaptation of Peter Houlahan’s book on a violent 1980s bank heist in Southern California that’s hosted by Futuro staffer Antonia Cereijido. And next month, those shows will be followed up with two more new releases: La Brega, a fully dual-language podcast about Puerto Rico, and Suave, which is centered on the story of a man, David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, who was sentenced to life in prison as a teenager. More projects are on the way (some still under wraps), all scheduled to drop throughout the rest of what’s shaping up to be another long year.
This head-turning wave of launches was partly the result of the pandemic, of course, which incurred delays in productions that were originally slated to debut last year. But equally influential is the fact that almost all these projects are co-productions with bigger organizations that have their own timeline needs. La Brega, Anything For Selena, and Norco 80 come out of collaborations with WNYC, WBUR, and LAist Studios, respectively. Suave is Futuro’s lone sole production of this set, with distribution support from PRX. (Disclaimer: I work with LAist Studios for my own show, Servant of Pod.)
So, yes, it just happened that everything needed to come out at around the same time, and it also happens that this wave makes for a grand introduction for Futuro Studios, which was formally established last year as the new creative programming division of Futuro Media Group. For the unfamiliar, Futuro Media Group is perhaps most known as the organization that houses of Latino USA, the long-running Latino-focused public radio program hosted by the veteran journalist Maria Hinojosa (who, by the way, just published a new memoir called Once I Was You). Hinojosa founded Futuro Media in 2010 as an independent nonprofit as means to take over ownership and production of Latino USA, which by that point had gone through several different institutional arrangements since its launch in the early nineties.
But the nonprofit also served as a staging ground to expand upon Hinojosa’s broader enterprise of foregrounding stories, voices, and perspectives that were typically underrepresented in the media. To that end, Futuro Media Group would eventually expand to include In The Thick, a politics round-table podcast that centers journalists of color, and Latino Rebels, a digital news outlet founded by the journalist Julio Ricardo Varela, who now wears many hats at the company, including VP of New Business Development.
Futuro Studios is the latest of such expansionary gambits, and it builds upon a few podcasting experiences that the company had racked up before last year. Those included projects with the Los Angeles Times (The Battle for 187), Netflix (Brown Love), the think tank PolicyLink (Radical Imagination), and the journalist Imara Jones, with whom they produce the TransLash podcast. Now, having been officially established, Futuro Studios is being positioned as the organization’s exploratory vessel to discover new creative and economic frontiers, with podcasts being a starting point.
Elementally, Futuro Studios allows the company to leverage its production expertise into straightforward revenue opportunities, like white label work-for-hire gigs. More broadly, though, the division presents the organization with a more focused channel to develop larger projects around internal talent and ideas. Cereijido, the host of Norco 80 and a senior producer at Futuro, tells me that this comes out of what she describes as the company’s traditionally horizontal culture, one that gives its producers a good amount of space to do their own thing to a point where they could feel empowered to mount bigger creative projects. From what I understand, the construction of Futuro Studios expands on the possible outcomes of such empowerment: Where, years ago, the endpoint of such ambition was a segment on Latino USA’s radio broadcast, the existence of this new creative division allows for the possibility of those ambitions to be realized as financially viable, standalone, on-demand audio projects.
Varela tells me that they had made the decision to build out the division organically, meaning: no outside money and no venture capital. “The thinking was basically, ‘let’s treat it like a startup within the structure of the company and see where this goes,’” he said. Because no additional funds were raised, they opted to pursue development strategies that could spread the risk around — hence the hard lean into the co-production model.
“We’re really production and editorial focused, and we don’t currently have much capacity with audience development, distribution, marketing, and so on,” said Bishop. “So, without an infusion of cash to make a lot of hires on those fronts, we just thought about: ‘How can we partner with organizations to amplify and monetize the work we’re doing?’”
Starting out wasn’t easy, and it took a good deal of persistence from the team when they started pitching Futuro Studios around in 2019. “Around that time, we saw the promise of underrepresented voices maybe getting attention in the podcast space, but it was still a bit of a hard sell,” said Varela. Cereijido recalled an experience during the process of pitching Anything For Selena, when they met with an executive — from “a big podcast company that shall go unnamed,” she notes — who didn’t know who Selena Quintanilla was. “There was, you know, some cultural barriers there,” said Cereijido.
That moment, somewhat archetypically, embodies the difficulties of trying to get projects with underrepresented perspectives made, even when there’s understood to be some broad interest in doing so. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm and interest [around serving underrepresented voices], especially with some folks thinking of it in terms of untapped markets,” said Bishop. “But sometimes, when push comes to shove, there can be a hesitancy to really invest and put their money where their mouth is. A lot of places prefer to stick to things that are more well trodden.”
Futuro Studios eventually found an array of partners primarily within public media, which the team perceives as a natural pairing. “Public media companies are also mission-based organizations willing to take risks that some private companies won’t necessarily do,” said Bishop. “Which isn’t to say that there isn’t excellent work coming out of the private sector.” To be sure, he notes, they have some partnerships there, too.
It’s a matter of getting the right partner with the right appetite to help them tell the stories they want in the right way. And sometimes, that means having a willingness to commit to a producer’s specificity. “I feel like one thing that happens occasionally are situations where a POC face is put on something, but it’s not their idea,” said Cereijido. By way of contrast, she points to the example of “The Quevedos,” an episode of Latino USA produced by former staffer Sayre Quevedo that told a story grounded in his own family history. Cereijido regards it as some of the best work Latino USA has ever done. “Sayre’s pitch was basically just, ‘I’m going to talk to my mom,’ but then you hear the story and it’s incredible,” she said. “It’s what you get when you really invest in someone.”
If you can’t wait for everybody else to build the world you want, you’re going to have to try and do it yourself. That seems to be the spirit driving the Futuro Media Group, and now Futuro Studios, as the latter works to deepen its body of work, I hope it keeps getting more opportunities to commit to the specificities of their mission. From the sound of what they’ve already released, I’m plenty excited to see what else comes out of that.
➽ Three Spotify blurbs. The first: Spotify signed yet another of those shiny Hollywood deals, this time with the filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Here’s the Variety write-up.
➽ The second: public domain audiobooks?
➽ The third: The company has opened its Streaming Ad Insertion offering up to the UK and Germany. The advertising tool still seems contained to Spotify original and exclusive shows. There’s one other Spotify story to consider, but I’m breaking it out as a standalone item further down the newsletter.
➽ From Axios: “As is the case with most new technologies, when it comes to podcasts, consumer adoption has outpaced monetization. Only a few big players make meaningful revenue from podcasts today, but that’s expected to change as the industry matures.” The gap between engagement and monetization persists.
Do We Still Need Tape Syncs?
By Aria Bracci
These days, podcasts might not sound as crisp as they used to, with many audio producers relying indefinitely on guests and sources recording themselves from home under pandemic conditions. Not long into the initial lockdowns last spring, Caroline Crampton asked in this newsletter: “When should in-person tape syncs resume?” Now, almost a year later, the question lingers, though I’m inclined to wonder whether a more fundamental query is worth posing: Should tape syncs resume?
If we’re talking about maintaining a level of recording quality, the answer may vary. One might have imagined that, once reasonable precautions can be determined, well-resourced operations would have tried ramping up commissions of in-person (though socially distant) recordings to ensure a certain polish to their sound. But since the initial lockdowns, calls for tape syncs from all sorts of teams have been relatively rare, says Maffick producer Greg Haddock.
He told me about recently seeing a tape sync request posted on behalf of Gimlet Media and then reflecting on the strangeness of how rare that felt. If Gimlet — generally a frequent commissioner of the service, in his observation — was hardly using tape syncs, why should anyone?
Kristina Vazovsky, for one, has her guests record themselves with an iPhone inside a sock.
Podcasting has historically been portrayed as having low barriers to entry. In an interview from March 2019 (translated from Russian), Vazovsky, founder of the Russian podcast company Tolk, described podcasting as “an astonishing industry with a very low entry threshold”; in keeping with existing rhetoric, she celebrated the ability to “create episodes from anywhere in the world with any kind of equipment.”
What Vazovsky couldn’t have known at the time was how normal — read: acceptable, even impressive — voice memos, Zoom calls, and phone line recordings would become just one year later. No longer the marker of a small-staffed or non-monetized operation, DIY recordings, normalized through their pandemic ubiquity — and many captured through the ever-improving software of smartphones — are, frankly, pretty decent.
“The corona[virus] was a good push to look at something like iPhones and a good set of instructions as a good alternative to expensive equipment,” says Vazovsky.
Amid a recent debate on this exact topic within the New York City Radio listserv, Ellen Horne, co-founder of Story Mechanics, shared a how-to graphic for recording at home, created by her business partner Charles Michelet.
If a Zoom recording is all you’ve got, it’s fine, really, says Horne; it gets the job done. However, “it sounds like they’re standing in a cathedral—or at a bank.” She decided to share the graphic with sources, “and it works — we got much better sound,” which she says better serves the listener. (She’s even entertaining the idea of making a comedic video version, à la JetBlue’s videos about flight etiquette; interested potential collaborators can find her on Twitter.)
Even when producers agree (and not all do, to be clear) that at-home recordings are currently the best option, there are still key points of debate — namely, what appropriate tools to use. Some ask their sources to download audio-recording software; others send professional equipment right to people’s houses; still others, like Vozovsky and Horne, stick with physical objects that sources are likely to have. No tool is a silver bullet, but they’re all objectively safer than recording in person, and many are free.
In this way, the loss of tape syncs could actually be good for newer producers or those with little to no funding, says Haddock: If lots of people are doing DIY recordings, a BBC show might at times sound like a homegrown production, and vice versa, and neither is necessarily a bad thing.
“In some ways, you might see kind of an emergence of new shows that are able to compete within that framework,” he says. Vazovsky agrees, saying the determining factor of a show’s success isn’t solely the quality of its sound. “It’s important, but it’s not the crucial part,” she says. “It’s the story you’re telling and how you’re telling it.”
At the same time, a widespread lowering of standards only accentuates shows that have managed to maintain high audio quality; some do this by continuing to arrange in-person recordings.
Who’s to say if it’s worth it? Vazovsky’s company, which she typically runs from London but currently orchestrates from Bali, doesn’t have a physical location; it doesn’t even have permanent equipment. Yet, she says, “we’re one of the most successful studios in Russia — for me, that’s a sign that it’s working.”
Will in-person tape syncs resume? If the process of arriving at an answer is by asking if they need to continue, perhaps they won’t. But if one’s reasoning involves a different question, chiefly if they should continue, the answer may look different.
As mentioned in this newsletter’s 2021 preview column a few weeks back, the tape sync economy is “a valuable source of money for freelancers.” According to AIR’s rate guide for tape syncs, the current starting rate for the service is $150 for the first hour, plus transportation costs, then $50 for every hour thereafter.
Tape syncs are how many people make money. They’re also, says Haddock, how they make connections, mistakes, and memories.
At the time a young Haddock completed his first tape sync, having a career in audio felt out of reach. “It was a crazy hobby — more of an obsession — that I’d poured thousands of thousands of dollars into, not to mention hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours,” he says. Securing that gig, and doing the job well, felt incredible. Plus, the interview subject was a former professional football player, one Haddock had grown up watching, making everything extra exciting.
“Doing tape syncs is a really, really accessible way to remind yourself that the work you’ve put in, that the hustle you’ve put in, to get to where you are, has been juice worth the squeeze,” he says.
As a former tape syncer, says Haddock, “I’m very empathetic to making sure that that industry stays alive,” and as a current senior producer, he’s finally in a position — and working with a budget — that would allow him to support it.
To that end, Haddock found it imperative to pay a professional for the task of recording a high-stakes interview for one of Maffick’s recent projects. Haddock says he thoroughly consulted the source, as well as the source’s family, and together they arranged for the sync to be done by a friend, whom the family had already been in contact with. Still, Haddock repeatedly reminded all parties that, if anything felt uncomfortable, they’d pull the plug, no questions asked.
Whether in-person tape syncs will resume is uncertain. On one hand, it’s beneficial if they do, supplying at least one source of income for people working in audio; on the other hand, the absence of this once-ubiquitous service could change overall audio standards, therefore opening one door to the industry while closing another, particularly one that plenty of other folks had accustomed themselves to using.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be so binary, so bleak. Horne left me with one more bit to consider, imparted to her by Miguel Macias of Latino USA. It’s a pretty penny, he says, to commission tape syncs and studio space on the regular — what if that part of budgets went away, allowing managers to instead increase wages for existing staff (or, and this is my own extrapolation, create more positions altogether)?
Horne, for one, thinks it’s possible. “This might be the way we’re going to make budgets in the future,” she says. “We don’t think we’re going to go back.”
In tomorrow’s Servant of Pod… Speaking of Futuro Studios, Maria Garcia joins the show this week to talk about Anything For Selena.
I wrote up the show recently for 1.5x Speed, and I’m recommitting to that recommendation. In addition to being a compelling blend of documentary and first-person narrative that revisits the legacy of Selena as a cultural icon, Anything For Selena is just also a really interesting argument for the power of celebrity — at least, celebrity of a specific kind. Anyway, our conversation covers a fair bit of ground: We talk about why she decided to embark on this project, why Selena’s cultural iconography persists to this day, and about that sequence with Howard Stern.
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.
The Mystery of Anchor
Something to mull over.
Last week, The Verge’s Ashley Carman published a report raising questions over a key pillar of the value proportion extended by Anchor, the plug-and-play podcast publishing platform that Spotify acquired for over $100 million in 2019. Specifically, Carman’s story takes aim at Anchor’s Sponsorships tool, which positions itself as a way for podcast creators hosted on Anchor to easily make money off their shows and listens.
When Anchor originally rolled out its Sponsorships program in late 2018, the company pitched it as “the first and only podcast advertising platform open to all podcasters and sponsors of all sizes, regardless of how many plays a show gets, or the size of a marketing budget.” In other words, it’s supposed to be a monetization tool that theoretically gets Anchor closer to realizing its vision of a consolidated YouTube-style ecosystem for audio.
However, drawing from interviews with nine podcast creators using the tool, Carman finds some doubt that Anchor Sponsorships is delivering what it’s supposed to deliver; that is, a marketplace that actually drives a reliable source of potential advertising dollars. She also unearths a slightly more curious finding: that Anchor and Spotify themselves appear to be the primary advertisers on the Anchor Sponsorships marketplace.
Here’s the key chunk from Carman’s piece:
Nine podcasters tell The Verge the same story: Anchor’s sponsorship feature seems to be seriously lacking in sponsors, and they’ve received few, if any, opportunities beyond Anchor or Spotify itself. Three people say they’ve earned thousands from Anchor and Spotify alone. Three also say they have now left or are looking to leave Anchor’s platform because they’re not receiving new sponsors.
Okay, so, I think it’s prudent to pull back a little. One of the challenges with assessing a platform like Anchor from the outside is its black box nature, which makes its full scope fundamentally (and intentionally) unknowable beyond a certain point. We know that hundreds of thousands of podcasts are actively hosted on the platform, some meaningful portion of which is presumably plugged into the Anchor Sponsorships system. As such, when you have a report like The Verge’s that draws upon nine qualitative examples, you’re naturally vulnerable to a structural counterargument that would suggest you to be looking at the anomaly, not the norm. Fewer than ten people report that they’re not seeing much opportunity routed through Anchor Sponsorships? Well, there are hundreds of thousands of rocks still left unturned. This is the natural narrative advantage held by Spotify and Anchor in a nutshell.
With that in mind, it’s a little strange, then, that Spotify declined to comment on the record when The Verge reached out (and similarly declined to comment on the record in my own correspondence). Instead, they pointed Carman to a lone counter-example, the unexpectedly popular bro-cast How Long Gone, which itself seems to corroborate of the report’s major suggestions: that, in what seems to be many cases, Anchor-using podcast creators are getting most of their Anchor Sponsorships revenue from Anchor itself. (Like other sources cited in the piece, How Long Gone’s hosts also say that the majority of their ads market Spotify and Anchor products.) You would think that, by way of disputing the claim, they’d extend a counter-example that gets more of its Anchor Sponsorships revenue from actual advertisers on the platform. That, at least, would strike at the heart of the report’s other major suggestion: that it feels like there’s not actually a reliable supply of advertisers on the platform.
I am, frankly, a little less bothered by the notion of Anchor dogfooding its own Sponsorship tool by itself. Yeah, it’s gaudy, but I’m familiar enough with the tech world to understand it as a tried-and-true growth tactic. However, the fundamental question raised in Carman’s piece is one that places the notion in the broader context: Is Anchor’s Sponsorship platform primarily dominated by in-house ads? Which is to say, is this a situation where the bulk of Anchor-hosted podcasts are primarily rendered to be a mass army of tiny little Spotify marketing vessels? Is Anchor’s mission statement of making it easier for people to publish podcasts actually half the picture, and the full picture of Anchor’s utility to Spotify is a platform that drives up the latter’s “number of shows distributed on Spotify” metric as well as its marketing reach?
Again, let’s back up a little. This is all speculative, to be sure, but the larger point is: It’s hard to tell what exactly is up with Anchor at this juncture, and Spotify doesn’t really seem to be putting forward many tangible data points that better answers the question for people. (Even some gesture towards a “total number of dollars paid + how many podcasts are getting payouts” metric set would be nice.)
Anchor’s utility in the Spotify podcast ecosystem was also recently made even more unclear in the wake of Spotify’s acquisition of Megaphone, a hosting platform that’s generally oriented towards higher-volume publishers and that also contains an internal advertising marketplace of its own. At first glance, there seems to be some duplication of value here, though one could suggest a distinction that Megaphone is for “higher-volume publishers” (see also: industrial-grade clients, whales, etc.) while Anchor is for “everyone else.” However, if one were to take that framing, then we’re basically talking about a situation in which Spotify, as a platform, would be operating from a position of gatekeeping between what’s an “industrial publisher” and what’s in the bush leagues. And if you were to reject that framing, then, well, we’re back at the original inquiry: What’s supposed to be the differentiated value proposition between Anchor and Megaphone? What is the point of Anchor, and how does it fit into the Spotify value chain?
Here’s what I’m not saying: that Anchor is a dud, that Anchor Sponsorships is a scam, and that something rotten is Sweden. These are all very smart and well-compensated people working to make the numbers work for themselves, for their signed talent, and for the greater galaxy of podcast producers, presumably in that order. What I’m saying is that there seems to be an increasingly noticeable tension between Spotify’s persistent dream-weaving of the past few years and what seems to be the actual lived experience on the platform. Spotify is due to report quarterly earnings in a few weeks, and I’m sure the company has wall-to-wall announcements lined up — new features, new deals, new visions that could very well render many of the questions raised throughout the column irrelevant. Right now, though, I can’t help relating to the Citi analysts who stood out for being alone in downgrading their assessments of Spotify recently. All that dream-weaving is nice, but I can’t help starting to wonder.