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Facebook Bursts Into the Live Audio Scene

Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/Shutterstock

You might have noticed that Facebook means to make a bit of noise on the digital audio front this week.

Yesterday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped by Sidechannel — the shared Discord project that I’m a part of with seven other independent newsletter writers (more info here) — for an interview with Platformer’s Casey Newton, where he announced several audio-related features that are slated to roll out on the Facebook platform in the coming months. As it turned out, Zuckerberg’s Discord appearance was part of a broader press push around Facebook’s new adventures in audio, which also included an official blog post and a Bloomberg story with a few quotes from Facebook App head Fidji Simo. Though, interestingly enough, Recode’s Peter Kafka preempted the push with a scoop on Sunday evening that got the bulk of the product announcements spot-on.

Here’s a list of the company’s upcoming audio-related features that were announced in an official capacity:

➽ A Clubhouse competitor called “Live Audio Rooms” that will be deployed both on Facebook Groups and Facebook Messenger. (The New York Times first reported the existence of this product back in February.) Facebook’s blog post on the matter also mentioned that the new feature will allow users to convert their live conversations into on-demand recordings for later consumption and that there’s some intent to get public figures to use the tool in a broadcast-like fashion. Put together, it seems the company is poised to pursue all possible social audio use cases the same time, whether it’s the many-to-many social media context or the one-to-many media performance context.

➽ Monetization tools attached to the Clubhouse competitor, which will start off through an integration with Facebook’s new-ish “Stars” tipping tool — something that I’ve never heard of before prior to this week but seems connected to the platform’s adventures in video streaming — and will eventually branch out to include other forms of monetization, like subscription and one-time purchases.

➽ A new social audio format they’re calling “Soundbites,” described as “short-form, creative audio clips.” This seems to be a gambit around some sort of TikTok- or Instagram-like experience for audio. (Shout-out to everybody who’s ever complained about podcasts being too long, and everybody who’s ever asked why audio doesn’t go viral. Also, Paris Hilton, whose upcoming podcast adventures, as detailed in The New York Times, will supposedly feature something she calls “Podposts,” short audio dispatches meant to match the cadence and tone of posts on social media.”) In another move of Clubhouse mimicry, Facebook is also rolling out an Audio Creators’ Fund to help “kickstart” the new format.

➽ Finally, Facebook is also apparently planning to more directly integrate podcast consumption into its app experience, meaning that Facebook users can listen to podcasts “directly on the Facebook app.” It’s unclear to me, at this point, whether this means that Facebook will be building an in-app feature to download and play podcasts, or whether it refers to an upcoming media player integration that I’ll talk about in a bit. The company’s blog post also had some language around promoting podcast discovery — “finding new podcasts and episodes based on your interests,” that kind of thing — but at this point, just about every platform newly participating in the podcast space says they want to do that, so, I don’t know. Anyway, there’s additionally some further language around podcast creators now being able to use Facebook to reach and connect with new listeners, though I imagine some already do, using Facebook’s existing advertising options. That is, of course, if they had a dedicated marketing budget to do so.

So that’s the official stuff. However, in Zuckerberg’s interview with Newton, he also talked about a few other things, including an upcoming expansion to Facebook’s relationship with Spotify that will involve the latter’s media player directly integrated into the Facebook feed. (This detail was mentioned in Kafka’s Sunday scoop, though not in the corporate blog post.) The initiative is apparently regarded internally as “Project Boombox,” and I’m told that the rollout of this integration could take place as early as next week.

Here’s one thing about this bit that caught my attention during the interview: Zuckerberg seemed to principally frame the “Project Boombox” partnership around the music side of the player experience. This is curious, because I’m pretty sure podcasts could be easily distributed over the integrated Spotify player in much the same way that any music track could. Which is to say, I wouldn’t necessarily discount the podcast piece from “Project Boombox” — unless, of course, there’s some sort of internal podcast player initiative yet to be announced by Facebook.

In any case, Spotify certainly doesn’t seem to see much distinction between the music and podcast pieces in its expanded relationship with Facebook. At least, that’s what I gather from the official statement by Spotify in response to Zuckerberg’s interview yesterday: “Facebook’s interest in audio is further validation of the category and reinforces what we’ve known all along — the power and potential for audio is limitless. Our ambition has always been to make Spotify ubiquitous across platforms and devices — bringing music and podcasts to more people — and our new integration with Facebook is another step in these efforts. We look forward to a continued partnership with Facebook, fueling audio discovery around the world.”

However things shake out, here’s the one big thing I’ll be watching for when the player integration rolls out: How will the data flows work between the two sides? Will Facebook get any of that data? And how will all this fit into the larger context of Apple’s upcoming data privacy update that has gotten Facebook a little riled up?

Three more things I want to hit before we move on:

Firstly, here’s my read on the Facebook side of the equation: This is very clearly Facebook feeling like it needs to respond to (or at least have a play in) the rising buzz and money sloshing around the modern digital audio category. And so I think we’re looking at the company now doing the thing it’s really good at, which is leaning on its core advantages — scale, gigantism, monopolistic power, and so on — and toss a bunch of in-category clones and incentives at the wall to see what sticks.

Clubhouse is hot? Let’s do that. Podcasting is hot? Let’s plug that in here. Spotify is hot? We’re doing them already, but let’s do more. The organizing principle for Facebook — as always, and as is the case for any attention-economy business — is to keep users on its apps and platforms as much as possible, and catching the modern digital audio wave in this manner falls from that imperative. Will any of these things stick? TBD, my dude. However, despite the fact that I’m not a particularly close observer of Facebook, even I know that the company has a… let’s say, mixed track record when it comes to new product innovations in recent years. I wouldn’t bet the farm on this.

This is probably the appropriate point to bring up Facebook’s last major audio push: a 2016 product called “Facebook Live Audio,” which let select publishers like the BBC World Service and HarperCollins stream live audio broadcasts to Facebook users. This attempt was connected to another media fad at the time — livestreaming — which has since faded for the most part. (RIP Periscope and Meerkat.)

Secondly, let’s go over the Clubhouse side of the equation. In a matter of weeks, Clubhouse’s competitive field has gone from mildly tentative to very, very crowded all of a sudden. Facebook has its upcoming “Live Audio Rooms,” Spotify acquired Locker Room, and rival products can be found from the likes of TwitterSlackLinkedIn, and Discord, among others. Yesterday, Reddit unveiled its cover of this pop song. I’m almost certain I’m missing somebody, and I’m almost certain more are on the way.

Which is presumably why, barely four months after its last fundraise, Clubhouse announced over the weekend that it has raised yet another funding round, once again led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from DST Global, Tiger Global, and Elad Gil. The social audio startup didn’t disclose the actual dollar amount of new money raised, but Reuters reports that it’s now valued at $4 billion, confirming an earlier report by Bloomberg. The previous round had valued it at $1 billion.

A beefed-up war chest always comes in handy to keep up with and stave off competitors — I mean, obviously — but as I sketched out in my February column on the company, Clubhouse’s principal challenge is of a more fundamental kind. Three months ago, the startup’s identity was chiefly defined by the vast universe of possible things it could be: a place to hang out with your friends, a place to meet strangers, a place to cosplay the most tedious of work conferences, a place to have a communal sports- or events-watching experience, a place to create brand new experiences native to the app, and so on. It was pure potential and, as a result, a vessel onto which investors can project their wildest dreams.

But with the introduction of each new competitor, most of which typically come attached to preexisting use cases, communities, and business engines, those possible identities are being progressively taken away from Clubhouse — or at least are having their viabilities substantially challenged. And so it’s my belief, then, that the startup’s primary challenge at this point is to figure out just what it’s supposed to be and consequently what core constituencies it’s supposed to serve, then to proactively organize around that moving forward.

Thirdly, here’s my read on the podcast ecosystem side of the equation. The thing that perhaps most intrigued me about Zuckerberg’s interview with Newton yesterday was an emphasis in his language around “creators.” The term is all the rage right now, and in Zuckerberg’s responses, there was some talk about how Facebook could help creators like newsletter writers and podcasters, and how the platform could help people like that better monetize their work and products. Maybe they could even provide better margins in doing so. Maybe they’ll even do this stuff for free.

It’s not hard to grasp the theoretical value of this appeal. After all, Facebook is one of the biggest internet platforms on the planet, and one can reasonably be tempted to think that even a little platform-sanctioned boost in the face of all those possible users could yield delicious returns.

However, as anybody who’s lived through the Pivot to Video can tell you, Facebook is best kept at arm’s length, maybe even farther. Whether by malice or neglect, there’s very little historical reason to even remotely trust Facebook on anything related to creators and media businesses. (And certainly, as many people who’ve closely watched Facebook’s impact on civil society over the years can tell you, there’s little historical reason to even remotely trust Facebook on anything at all.)

This isn’t to say there’s no possible upside to Facebook doing this song and dance around audio. This slew of new product announcements is almost certainly going to increase the visibility, accessibility, and excitement around audio formats of all shapes and sizes, podcasting included, at least for a while. Maybe it’ll even convert more listeners into the medium.

But however those creator tools shake out, I wouldn’t build a media business that’s mortally dependent on Facebook’s infrastructure under any circumstances. I would go just about anywhere else. Play on, Reznor.

Selected Notes

➽ I’d keep a very close eye on today’s Apple “Spring Loaded” event if I were you. There’s been a bit of reporting leading up to the event that suggests Apple’s going announce some sort of “paid subscription” service to its podcast platform. Whether this means an Apple TV+/Netflix for podcast-style service or something more Patreon-like within the Apple Podcast context — as noted in this Wall Street Journal report — is the question, and we’ll get that answered in a few hours. More broadly, though, the big organizing question will be: how will today’s announcement impact the open podcast ecosystem?

➽ Back to Spotify: Last week, the company rolled out a revamped podcast charts experience, complete with a blog post explaining what the charts do (and do not) actually convey. It’s a transparency bit that doubles as a smart piece of marketing, given Apple Podcasts’ historical opacity around their own charts system, which has for the longest time been the most important piece of podcast marketing real estate, so much so that it spawned countless “how do the Apple Podcast charts work?” posts, including one from myself back in 2016.

➽ The new iteration of NPR’s Invisibilia, now hosted by Kia Miakka Natisse and Yowei Shaw, launches this week.

➽ Also returning this week: Slate’s Slow Burn, with a new season hosted by Noreen Malone on the U.S. run-up to the Iraq War. The eight-part series will kick off tomorrow, and Slate’s doing that thing where Slate Plus members will get eight additional episodes with bonus content.

➽ Here’s an intriguing new company I’m tracking: Sonoro Media, a venture-backed podcast studio that’s working to position itself as a leading provider of “U.S. Latinx and global Hispanic content in audio.” The company has about 25 employees in Los Angeles, New York, and Mexico City, and it has been operating under the radar over the past year or so, poking its head up last October with a fiction horror project called Crónicas Obscuras. Today, they’re rolling out its first big project of the year: Toxicomanía: El Experimento Mexicano, a Spanish-language fiction podcast starring Luis Gerardo Méndez, Aida López, and Rainn Wilson.

➽ Leo Laporte’s sixteen-year-old (!) TWiT podcast network is launching a membership program, called Club TWiT. The acronym, by the way, stands for “This Week in Tech,” in case you’re unfamiliar.

The Wide and Wonderful World of Weed Podcasts

By Kevin Cortez

I think it’s safe to say that many of you reading this have probably smoked weed before, maybe even still do. And guess what? That’s totally cool. Smoking weed is normal, despite the plant being listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, alongside such substances as heroin, bath salts, and mescaline. Nearly 70% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and over 32 million Americans say they smoke regularly (numbers, by the way, that keep going up yearly). New York just became the 15th state in our nation to legalize recreational weed.

And yet, it takes a certain kind of person to become a public advocate of the plan, and perhaps even more so to be a podcaster who solely focuses on covering it. They are the snack eaters of Weed + Grub; the wine pundits of Wine & Weed; the multiple stock market analysts and business insider gurus on GanjapreneurBenzinga Cannabis Hour and Cannabis Tech TalksHenry Zebrowski of The Last Podcast on the Left, whose podcast sold out herb grinders in no time and looks to be gearing to launch official podcast weed vapes sometime soon. And beyond the category of podcast creators, there are the “Weedarinos,” the weeded My Favorite Murder “murderinos” fans who congregate and bond over pot on Facebook. Whether they realize it or not, all these players make up a constituency that’s contributing to setting the record straight over decades of stigma attached to smoking weed. They’re all normalizing it.

One notable example of a podcast that’s been helping push this course correction is Great Moments in Weed History, a show that gives high history lessons while the hosts get high themselves. Rather than chasing the industry news beat, each episode sees David Bienenstock and Abdullah Saeed presenting listeners with a history lesson on a weed-smoking hero of the past. These heroes include, but are not limited to, John Lennon and his rally for John Sinclair, a political activist targeted by Michigan police who was sentenced to ten years of prison for passing two joints; Native American leader Alex White Plume and the harassment he received from the DEA for harvesting hemp crops on the Pine Ridge Reservation; and jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, who smoked a ton of weed and cited the plant as being influential to their music.

“We started our podcast after spending a decade working for major media companies and creating valuable properties, only to realize those companies ultimately don’t care about cannabis or even their own employees — except as a means to making money,” Bienenstock tells me. “So much about humanity’s 10,000-year love affair with cannabis has been actively suppressed by the government and the media. And the emergence of corporate cannabis as a byproduct of legalization brings its own kind of erasure. All of which means, there’s a wealth of incredible weed stories that people have either never heard before or know just the scantest details.”

“Being public about cannabis use within a cultural, social, or professional sphere definitely carries the risk of being unfairly judged,” Saeed tells me over email. “This type of thinking is beginning to subside, but there’s still people out there who would say [Bienenstock and I are] not ‘serious’ because we’re enthusiastic in our celebration of cannabis, or that we’re politically biased towards it just because we enjoy it ourselves. The fact of the matter is, we’re counteracting a culture that has been biased against weed for decades based on a complete lack of understanding, and that’s far more dangerous.”

Comedian Doug Benson has also been a major proponent for weed since discovering it in his late twenties and seems to have carved out an entire career around it. His video podcast Getting Doug with High was initially a product of JASH, a comedy network started by comedians Michael Cera, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Sarah Silverman, and Reggie Watts, which aimed to provide professional comedy content on YouTube. Getting Doug With High was created after Benson pitched JASH head and producer Daniel Kellison a show in which he could smoke weed with guests and talk about weed-related things. According to Benson, the show’s intent is “to normalize recreational cannabis consumption and have a few laughs in the process.”

Nowadays, Getting Doug with High resides on Patreon as a Zoom-oriented show, but it remains relatively the same. The formula is straightforward: bring a celebrity or three onto the show, smoke a bunch of weed, and shoot the shit live at around 4:15 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Wednesdays — timed, obviously, to start blazing at exactly 4:20 p.m.

The show usually begins with the celebrities explaining their personal introductions to weed, but as you would expect, the hangouts often end in tangents, derailed conversation, and occasional quietness due to Benson and co. imbibing a little too much. Getting Doug with High gave performers like Aubrey PlazaNatasha Leggero, and Michael Ian Black the opportunity to quietly admit to the public that they, too, smoke weed. It’s also an experience that brings a more humanizing aesthetic to the celebrity in question, capturing a casual hangout on film where they could comfortably smoke weed together in a small setting. Although, in the cases of Jack Black and Eric André, it also showed how smoking too much could trigger anxiety for some folks.

Celebrity or not, the stigma still exists for this privileged class. When asked about why certain celebrities would turn down doing his show, Benson said: “Some say they don’t want to do it because their family doesn’t know they get high. Others worried that they would lose work with a company, like Disney, if they were seen ‘doing drugs’ on the internet. I guess they’ve never heard of Snoop Dogg. But yeah, it seems to be less so every day, but there’s still a lot of stigma attached to cannabis use.”

Beyond the famous, there’s also a plethora of shows dedicated to normalizing weed on the ground level. Blunt Blowin’ Mama, for example, was started by host Shonitria Anthony to fight the stigma of cannabis-smoking mothers. “I just had a baby three months ago,” she says on the show’s first episode. “I’m [still] breast-feeding my baby boy, and I’m smoking a joint right now…  It doesn’t make me a bad person. I know society has taught us what motherhood should look like, and I’m here to turn that shit on its head. This is what my version of motherhood looks like.”

Since the show’s debut, Anthony has spoken with numerous guests from college students to lovers in polyamorous relationships to other busy parents, all of whom smoke weed and appear on the show to help counter the social stigma that pot might make them lazy and generally unmotivated people. The conversations drift into spaces of relationships, love, education, and wellness, but the common denominator for everything remains the same: marijuana.

How to Do the Pot occupies a similar lane. Created by host April Pride, the show is exclusively aimed at educating women on the good green. Each episode is a short explainer on various topics catered to women who dabble in pot, from smoking for period pain relief to using cannabis to spice up sex life. There’s also cannabis advocate and former TV host Montel Williams, who’s been smoking daily since 1999 to relieve the symptoms of his chronic illness. His show, Let’s Be Blunt with Montel, sees the host speaking with medical workers, comedians, rappers, lawyers, and a plethora of other advocates on a weekly basis, unraveling what each professional does in their unique spaces and how marijuana has given them an added meaning to their respective crafts.

I list out all these podcasts to basically say: Hey, there’s a healthy spot for weed in the podcast world, and that’s pretty cool. Smokers don’t always have it so great, even if they’re not public facing or using for medical purposes — we can look at the recently fired teacher Allison Enright as a fresh example of this. But marijuana is nonetheless a helpful crutch for some creators in the industry and the center of attention for some great podcasts. To be a face of weed means to bear a social stigma by friends and family, not to mention the potential weight of a federal-level offense, according to our national policies. Marijuana still has potential to burn bridges.

But as Abdullah Saeed tells it, it’s better to have smoked and gotten high than not smoked at all. “As for the jobs we’ve sacrificed or the relationships we’ve forgone, if they weren’t going to tolerate our zeal for cannabis, we didn’t want them anyway. We’re doing what we want to do. When people who consume our content tell us the podcast makes them feel included, empowered, and emboldened to let their freak flag fly and tell the world ‘I love cannabis and I don’t give a damn what you think about it,’ then we know we’re doing our job.”

How Do You Make a Market Rapport?

In the marketing materials for Pod Across the Pond, you’ll find brief descriptions of the show’s premise: a chatcast hosted by two American sisters, Erin and Shannon Huebscher, about their parallel experiences living in Germany and the U.S. What you won’t find, however, is any mention of the hosts’ comedic timing or the wells of knowledge they have about each other, which comes through as much on the show as it does when you just get them on the phone. (Shannon: “I can start, since I’m the oldest.” Erin: “I knew she was gonna do that.”) As with many other chatcasts, that’s the stuff that really makes the show pop, but it’s hard for a newcomer to know that without having already picked up the podcast.

The sisters’ synergy is the main reason they started the show, says Shannon, a devoted listener of personality- and relationship-driven shows. “The people that host them have a chemistry with each other that transcends the airwaves,” she explains, which she realized she didn’t have to limit herself to just consuming: “That is actually something that I have with my sister.”

Existing listeners of their show express that they enjoy the dynamic, says Shannon, but when asked if she and Erin think they effectively convey this energy to potential listeners — particularly in, say, the social media assets they’ve rolled out — the older Huebscher sighed. Ultimately, the component of their show that’s so vital for hooking listeners is also something that’s incredibly challenging to advertise: rapport.

You probably know what I mean if you’ve ever listened to a chatcast and thought, “I haven’t even read the book these people are discussing, but man, I could listen to them talk all day.” If the conversation is compelling, it has the capacity to tether you to topics that, on paper, maybe you’d never seek out on your own. But again, that’s a hard thing to efficiently communicate in the fast-moving media universe.

If chemistry, vibe, and rapport are things that keep listeners coming back, can they make them show up in the first place? How, in any intentional way, do you market those intangibles?

For the hosts I spoke to, it’s a continual challenge.

“Looking forward, I would hope that that’s something that becomes more obvious to people,” Huebscher says, imagining that potential listeners might pick up on her and her sister’s energy from audio clips or word of mouth. She points to My Favorite Murder as an example: “That’s never been marketed as — to your point— ‘listen to two friends talk about crime stories, then end up learning this loving friendship and business relationship.’” Yet, that’s ultimately what the show provides.

As has long been established by now, My Favorite Murder has a massive following, with listeners often praising the energy and interplay of the hosts in particular. What’s intrigued so many listeners for so many years — and made it the fifth-most-listened to show of 2020, according to Edison Research — is likely a combination of the hosts’ dynamic and the focus on true crime. The importance of the latter can’t be ignored, since such an in-demand topic is pretty likely to draw people in in the first place, which means working with subjects less popular than true crime often equals less likelihood that listeners make the gamble of clicking, which in turn means fewer opportunities for hosts to make a case with their voices alone.

Sometimes, hosts just get lucky. I was put onto Pod Across the Pond by a chance Google Alert; for many listeners of The Greatest Generation, it happened via press that hosts Ben Ahr Harrison and Adam Pranica received early in the show’s production. The former acknowledges that, given how many early listeners were funneled in, the show had the advantage of being able to speak for itself. But though lots of listeners have stuck around, gaining new ones requires strategy. While Star Trek, the focus of The Greatest Generation, is by no means an indie topic, Ahr Harrison and Pranica do still struggle with how to make their show the one people go to from the start; there are plenty of Star Trek competitors out there, after all. In that case, assuming a potential listener might fan through shows by cover art or descriptions, they try to make theirs stand out.

“We call the show ‘A Star Trek podcast by a couple of guys who are a little bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast’ not because we’re actually embarrassed to have this show, but more because we recognize that these aren’t the kinds of conversations we’d have in public in front of strangers,’” Ahr Harrison told me over email.

For them, the particular word “embarrassed” in their promotional materials has come to serve as a filter for new listeners, bringing in those who have a similarly nuanced relationship to the franchise and would likely appreciate hearing it reflected back to them. “I think a lot of them can relate to really loving a sci-fi show but not necessarily wanting to put that on main in a professional environment or on a first date,” Ahr Harrison wrote.

Capturing complexity is particularly important for the chatcast FANTI, which is less about a particular topic than it is about an approach. That approach, says co-host Jarrett Hill, is to complicate things that might otherwise be regarded as simple or be praised blindly. (The show’s title is a portmanteau of “fan” and “anti.”) Even more specific and central to the show, he says, is emphasizing the nuance of Black and queer individuals, which both he and co-host Tre’vell Anderson identify as. “We have complex ideas about things,” Hill says. “Mind you, I’m usually right and Tre’vell’s usually wrong, but that’s not what we’re discussing.”

FANTI topics vary widely, as do how listeners might react to them. “I hope that folks just feel like they can be involved in the conversations that we’re having and that it challenges them and pushes them to think differently,” Anderson says. With something so variable being arguably hard to capture and market, what the pair chose to focus on — what they felt they really could focus on — was the diversity of opinion and experience that Anderson and Hill themselves bring to each conversation. To this end, the team concocted specific visuals.

For an early photoshoot, says Anderson, “we wanted each of our faces to convey some conflicting energy. So if he was smiling, I was supposed to have a ratchet face on or something like that, to be kind of a visual representation of our dynamic and the uniqueness of our personalities.” You can see this most vividly in the first iteration of FANTI’s cover art, which presents “tension, if you will, in our expressions,” says Anderson.

Ultimately, though, just getting audio in front of folks is what makes the most difference, says Hill, and to that end, he and Anderson have previously arranged for episodes of FANTI to be distributed through other show’s feeds, which resulted in a surge of new listeners. Words can only say so much about a show, notes Hill; it’s, in his words, “more valuable to give it a shot.”

As it goes, to get someone to give it a shot, there sometimes isn’t much more one can do than say, as Anderson does in the FANTI trailer, “trust me — you’re gonna love it.”

For now, the Huebschers are relying on such trust, since once they’re heard, charm can take over. Erin says their rapport on the show, which launched in January 2021, is already getting attention. “What we’ve heard from people that have tuned in so far is that they feel that.”

“We don’t know exactly how they’re finding us,” Shannon notes, which Erin affirms.

“Like the Saudi Arabia one,” she laughs. “I have no idea who found us in Saudi Arabia.”

Facebook Bursts Into the Live Audio Scene