The Undervalued Work of the Audio Producer
By Skye Pillsbury
Earlier this year, eleven producers, editors, and engineers who had been hired by Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE) to create weekly flagship podcasts for its WIRED, Vogue, and Pitchfork brands posted an open letter detailing the experience of working for, and eventually leaving, the media company. The letter alleged a work environment in which management had little understanding of the resources and time required to produce high-quality podcasts, where staff was consistently left in the dark in regards to long-term planning and job security, and employees were viewed as interchangeable and easily replaceable.
“It was very chaotic,” Ninna Gaensler-Debs, who was hired to work on the Get WIRED podcast, told me over the phone last week. “There was a lot of confusion over what the roles were going to be. We were very much making it up as we went along. We were just trying to keep up with production, and we were super understaffed.”
Eventually, the group was successful in convincing CNE executives to add support, and the audio team achieved something akin to a production groove. But those gains didn’t last for long. According to the letter, CNE then abruptly outsourced The Pitchfork Review podcast to an external production firm. Its former staffers were told that they could either leave the company or find a place on the Get WIRED team.
Shortly thereafter, the In Vogue podcast team learned their jobs would be terminated as well. “What was shocking was having the experience of really, truly being seen as a cog in a machine,” Megan Lubin, a producer on the In Vogue project, told me last week.
Gaensler-Debs claimed that during a final meeting with management, a CNE vice president — who was theoretically responsible for the Get WIRED podcast — confessed that she hadn’t listened to a single episode of the new show. “That will forever be what sticks in my head,” said Lubin. By January, nearly every person hired by Condé Nast Entertainment to create its slate of flagship podcasts had left.
(When reached for comment, a spokesperson for CNE wrote back: “Our new leadership team at Condé Nast Entertainment cares deeply about our partnerships with talent and the teams who help produce our content… We know that the podcast industry is highly competitive right now and are laser focused on providing the very best experience for the teams that work with us.”)
When I asked Gaensler-Debs how she feels about the experience now, she didn’t hesitate with her response. “It was so frustrating and dehumanizing at a corporate level, but the way that this group of audio producers came together and supported each other was really heartening and powerful and made me feel hopeful for audio.”
It appears evident that a key dynamic in the CNE situation was a basic lack of understanding, on the part of Condé Nast executives, around the role of production staff and the work it takes to create the kind of audio product they were expecting. This, to some extent, is further rooted in a general confusion and vagueness around what producers actually do — which, in talking with over a dozen producers and industry folk from different corners of the podcast world over the past few weeks, seems to be a common affliction.
If you look up the job descriptions of “podcast producers” online, you’ll find that they often vary tremendously, with responsibilities that can include conceptualizing the arc of a show or an episode, conducting research, writing interview questions and scripts, pre-interviewing guests, editing, leading calls with clients, determining show policy, managing budgeting, scheduling, booking, travel, invoicing, etc. These lengthy descriptions imply that the job is typically somewhat fluid and that applicants need to be prepared for whatever comes their way.
However, according to the people I spoke with, such expansive expectations often make it challenging for producers to get hired at the appropriate level, set limits, negotiate raises, claim credit for their contributions, and more.
“The vagueness of the word producer has haunted me — us, our community — forever,” Keisha “TK” Dutes, executive producer of Spoke Media and former producer of shows including Thirst Aid Kit and Rise Up Radio, told me on the phone earlier this month. “It’s vague in a way that serves everyone except for the makers, the producers. When I’m trying to explain my job to outside people, sometimes I just shut down and say, ‘I make the show.’ Like I made it. See the script? I wrote that. See the microphone? I set that up. Hear the music? I told them where to put it and how to fade it.”
Dutes said that, because the role of producer has become a repository for numerous jobs within podcasting, the expectations of a single person’s role can easily get out of sync with reality. “We love this job,” Dutes continued. “We love it through abuse. We love it through racial reckonings. We love it through unfair wages. We love making audio, right? And because of that, a lot of folks have been taken advantage of.”
Dutes is quick to point out that there are places, including Spoke Media, where she is an executive producer, where management has been thoughtful about job specifications and has implemented a chain of command that works well. Similarly, a number of producers I interviewed for this story tend to speak positively about their current work culture. But there remains a sense that these stories are exceptions that prove the rule.
Some argue that these gaps persist because podcasting doesn’t have an industry-wide union, perhaps in the same way that SAG-AFTRA supports the TV, film, and now influencer industries. (There have been some relationships forged between SAG and fiction podcast creators, but that’s a different story.)
Were the industry to move in that direction, they argue, a union could create a standard set of job definitions and expectations and provide the ability to advocate for fair pay and other benefits. “I think that people are more and more open [to this idea],” said Dutes. “Not only because they’ve seen that it’s possible through other companies but because folks are becoming less shy about asking to be paid a fair wage.”
Industry-wide use of ambiguous job descriptions is further complicated by the invisibility of producers within the creations themselves. After getting hired, the standard expectation at most podcast shops is for producers to largely exist as behind-the-scenes staff. This, of course, is true for things like film and television production as well, but those are established industries with strong histories of labor, and in the relatively newer and less broadly understood podcast business, the unseen nature of most producers can translate to a lack of progression in the wider education of hiring companies — and a general lack of power in the face of companies who should know better.
Some within the industry have suggested that this dynamic perpetuates a negative cycle, in which advancing as a producer can be inordinately challenging. “We as young producers are often taught implicitly or explicitly that in order to be successful we must make ourselves perfectly useful and mostly invisible,” former New York Times and Radiolab producer Kelly Prime wrote to me in an email last week. “We can be heard and seen behind the scenes and be celebrated for that — to the extent that we are not just willing but also eager to be a ‘team player’ with a ‘positive attitude’ — which is too often code for not pushing too hard for recognition, fair payment and air time.”
It’s worth pointing out that many producers prefer their position as behind-the-scenes contributors and aren’t interested in entering the frame in a more public way. Prime acknowledged this point, saying that it is “more than fine” for producers to stay behind the mic if they wish. Conversely, she pointed out that hosts don’t always want the “power and singularity of voice” afforded by their position either.
“For me, the key here is that every producer should feel like their voice is valued, should they want to use it,” wrote Prime.
Sayre Quevedo, a former associate producer at the New York Times, elaborated on a similar theme when we spoke earlier this month. “What gets lost is that, for the most part, producers don’t do this [work] because they’re interested in pushing out random products for the rest of their lives, but because they have interesting perspectives and experiences and stories they want to tell,” he said.
Quevedo started producing audio at a very early age, and when he was fifteen, he had landed a job as a reporter at NPR’s Youth Radio in Oakland, which was followed by associate producer gigs at Audible and Latino USA. By the time he applied for a producer role at the New York Times, he had won a Third Coast award and had been nominated for another award from the International Documentary Association. Despite all this, his application for the producer role was rejected. According to Quevedo, he was then offered the relatively junior role of associate producer “as a way to get my foot in the door.”
He took the job, which mostly comprised editing episodes of The Daily for radio — work he said he was overqualified for — hoping he’d advance quickly. However, eight months later, the proverbial needle hadn’t moved. Around this time, Vice approached Quevedo with an offer to be a producer, and he accepted. (He’s currently producing a six-part investigative series over there.)
When I asked Quevedo why he thinks the New York Times and Vice responded to his resume so differently, he was diplomatic. “We’re in an industry that has this influx of money, right? And I suspect that people are just looking for people who can get the job done. There’s not always a lot of thought given to what those individuals bring in terms of their perspective and their backgrounds, or how they could lift or change the show versus perform rote tasks.”
I pressed Quevedo a little harder on the point, and he eventually hazarded a guess. “I suppose the two teams looked at my experience and saw two different things. One group saw the fact that I was doing rigorous journalistic work when I was a teenager as not adding value. The other group saw it as, ‘wow, he’s been doing this since he was a teenager!’”
He added: “I got the inkling that [the Times’ hiring manager] didn’t listen to Latino USA or Youth Radio very often. Which points to a larger issue, the idea being that your labor only has value if it’s something [the manager] recognizes and has listened to.”
Quevedo offered a final thought. “For people to grow and get a chance to actually learn, shows have to be willing to take chances on people who don’t fit their narrow box of what they think their show needs. They need to invest in helping develop them. I do think that’s how we improve the industry as a whole.”
➽ This morning, the Vox Media Podcast Network announced that it is expanding its partnership with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, who currently host the Pivot podcast for New York Magazine. This expansion includes a push into video projects over the next year — insert Pivot to video jokes here, come on — as well as more work around live programming, which took the form of the Pivot Schooled virtual event last year. Pivot’s listenership was said to have grown by about 50% in 2021 over 2020. Notably, the expansion of this partnership will also include bringing over Galloway’s Prof G podcast into Vox Media, starting April 1. Previously, that show had been distributed by Westwood One.
➽ Relatedly, Liz Kelly Nelson, Vox’s VP of Audio, told Digiday last week that revenue for the podcast division apparently doubled in 2020 compared to 2019. (Quick disclaimer to note Vulture is a New York Magazine brand, which is a Vox Media property. Russian doll, and so on.)
➽ Speaking of Westwood One, the radio company announced that Dan Bongino, the conservative radio and podcast host that it has cultivated over the past few years, is taking over the late Rush Limbaugh’s time slots in a few major markets. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Bongino will fill the three-hour show’s slot in markets including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Most other stations will continue to air old tapes of Mr. Limbaugh, which has been the practice since he died.” This is the natural end point for the growing trend of rising right-wing podcast development, which I wrote about last November.
➽ Relatedly, today Westwood One is also announcing new distribution partnerships with Gaby Dunn, who makes Bad With Money, and DCP Entertainment, the publisher behind podcasts like Say Their Name and Toure Show.
➽ Meanwhile, it’s been a pretty busy period for Slate, which is in the middle of a stretch where they’re launching three new shows in three months: Last month saw the debut of A Word … With Jason Johnson; this week sees the roll-out of ICYMI, a new internet culture podcast with Madison Malone Kircher and Rachelle Hampton (the first episode, I’m told, is about “how the pandemic killed online celebrity culture”); and they’re also releasing a collaboration with Arizona State University called Mission: Interplanetary, which is, as the title suggests, about SPACE. And I hear there’s some Slow Burn news up ahead…
➽ From Variety: “The Media Roundtable, a group of organizations that aims to promote civility and stronger dialogue in media, is launching a chart of what it considers to be the podcasts that display the most and least bias.” I’m not putting too much stock in this, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.
➽ Last week, Spotify rolled out a web portal called “Loud and Clear,” meant to serve as a messaging campaign presenting data on how money generated off streams on the platform is paid out to musicians, the music labels, and themselves. Pitchfork framed the portal as a response of sorts to protests by the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers over the effects of Spotify’s dominant streaming position on the wider universe of musicians distributed over the platform. The long-running tension, very broadly speaking: Spotify argues that its incentives are aligned with music artists, while the union argues that the platform has cultivated an unfair payout system. Dig into the Pitchfork piece for more details on this.
➽ Meanwhile, Spotify is adding a few new features to its mobile Home tab, which the company is pitching as adjustments to improve navigation and discovery. Three features were specified: a “Recently Played” view that pulls up your listening history; a module within the Home hub that lines up a collection of new and unfinished podcast episodes (only available for Premium users, apparently); and a new recommendation module oriented around discovery that it describes as “personalized, timely, and reactive to your taste.” These are all… fine, but personally speaking, my biggest gripe continues to revolve around basic podcast management in the “Your Library” tab. Still feels really messy.
➽ Last week, the BBC announced that it is shifting some of its key jobs, departments, and productions outside of London, spreading out operations across the rest of the United Kingdom. The organization phrases the move as an effort to make “the corporation more reflective of the UK as a whole.”
➽ Over at VentureBeat, Dean Takahashi has an interview-driven look at the state of Rooster Teeth, the video-podcast-centric media company owned by Warner Media. The company pushed into audio-only podcasts last year, and according to Takahashi, its podcasts “saw a 20% increase in listeners in 2020” and has added 22 new partnerships in its bid to become a “fan-driven, community-built entertainment company.”
➽ For Vulture, I spoke with former Binge Mode co-host Jason Concepcion about what he’s doing at Crooked Media, his typical work day, and his approach to the art of the take. Both of his new projects, the Takeline podcast with Renee Montgomery and the ALL CAPS NBA digital video series, launched last week.
➽ Finally, shout-out to The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman on the debut of his new pasta shape, which looks like a tasty little sea creature.
Food(52) for Thought
By Aria Bracci
Say you want to make a bundt cake, but you’re worried you won’t get it just right.
You might opt to watch someone else do it by following along with a cooking video on YouTube, as opposed to reading a written recipe and periodically scrolling up and down to match pictures with the words that describe them. With a video, in addition to being guided through the process, you might also get a glimpse inside a chef’s home or a feeling, however faint, that you’re hanging out with another human.
So, here’s my question: Could the appeal of cooking videos, in both their functionality and friendliness, translate to the podcast format?
It certainly seems possible, particularly if listeners are given the capability to bounce between preparation steps in the event that the instructions move a little more quickly than they do, and if, keeping in mind that the audience is listening and not watching, the presenting chef makes a point to verbally illustrate how much oil should be in a pan. Extra points if said chef tells a story or two along the way.
This is exactly what happens in the podcast Play Me a Recipe, which got me excited about the viability of what you could call “cookalong” audio — despite, however, being one of only a handful of examples I could find within this theoretical genre. (The show takes direct editorial inspiration from one of those few other examples: Cal Peternell and Kristina Loring’s Cooking By Ear, which Loring described over email “as an experiment with a deep curiosity about the possibilities of more interactive podcasting” but that is no longer actively putting out episodes.)
Play Me a Recipe comes from the popular food media site Food52, for which instructional videos are its “bread and butter,” says Coral Lee, a podcast producer at the company. Cross-media experimentation was a result of staff wanting socially distanced food enthusiasts to feel less alone; my initial impression was that it could also make it more convenient to follow along: With audio alone, you still get the sounds and spirit of the kitchen and the personality and anecdotes of the chef, but without having to bob your head constantly from cutting board to computer.
There’s some technical innovation involved here. If you’re cooking at a different pace than the guiding voice — which you inevitably will be, as the episodes, like many cooking videos, are edited down from their full recorded length — you can skip around by podcast “chapters,” which correspond to the steps of the recipe. In one particular episode, chef Brinda Ayer even gives a verbal cue for when the potato-chopping stage is about to end.
One should note, though, that chapter-oriented design isn’t ubiquitously available across podcast platforms. Pocket Casts and Apple Podcasts enable navigation by chapters, but Spotify, which holds an increasing share of listenership, does not. This could make using the chapter feature during a live cooking session pretty clunky, depending on your preferred method of listening to podcasts, and to be honest, at first I found it difficult to figure out on the platforms that do support it. (For reference, here’s how it works on Apple Podcasts: Start playing an episode of, in this case, Play Me a Recipe, then, from the episode’s player screen, scroll down. To the right of the label “Chapters,” click “Show,” which will expand a tab below and display a recipe’s clickable chapters along with their corresponding time stamps.)
However, it turns out that the tricky accessibility of chapters might not be a problem for some listeners, at least when it comes to Play Me a Recipe. Lee tells me that the idea for the podcast came to be precisely because it looked like it could fill a hole in the podcast landscape, which was reason enough to pursue the idea, even with, “a bit naively, little concern about its viability.” As I had also observed, there didn’t seem to be many shows attempting to deliver a wholly functional audio “cookalong” experience, which she and I ended up acknowledging could be for good reason.
“We had expected people to really only listen to this while they were in their kitchen cooking,” she says, laying out the original scope of the show’s design, which is, admittedly, pretty narrow. But as listener feedback has indicated, some people take the podcast straight: Lee says a good number has reported listening to the show as entertainment alone, while doing things like walking outside or folding laundry.
There is a diversity of use cases within the show’s audience, which is modest but growing. Lee reports that, since launching in October 2020, weekly downloads for the show have hovered around 5,000 per episode within a week of publication, with unique listenership doubling the first week of March. Play Me a Recipe was designed as a strictly instructional concept, yet it appears to be embraced beyond — and sometimes even instead of — that function. Does this reflect poorly on the original conceit? Lee, for one, doesn’t think so. “Maybe it’s less service-oriented than we thought,” she says, and she finds that shift exciting: “I don’t think we’re tied to one vision of this show.”
I will say that, at the very least, you could cook one of the podcast’s recipes by just looking at the show notes and probably still gain something: Reading off of Spotify’s gentle, dark interface is a lot more pleasant than fighting pop-up ads on a brightly colored recipe blog. (The desktop version of the show’s Spotify page is somewhat messily formatted. It looks sharper on mobile.)
When Lee says of the show, “I think it’s a more acceptable format than people are expecting it to be,” she’s speaking to the range of applications that the show — with its famous figures, charming anecdotes, and ASMR-like sizzles — has demonstrated it can have since launching. This speaks to the other facets of a cooking show’s allure that I mentioned at the top: friendliness and familiarity, beyond pure function.
But, again, what excited me about this originally was its pragmatic potential. You’re telling me I could be guided through a recipe, with all the charm of a traditional cooking video, but be less likely to distractedly cut off my thumb nail? Rad.
I’m personally still rooting for this to take hold purely for its utility, and I think it can. Many Play Me a Recipe listeners are responding positively to elements of the production that include but aren’t limited to its function, but I think precisely that audio-based culinary instruction, when done right, is too strong of an asset to let pass by.