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Welcome (Back) to Depresh Mode

Photo: Maximum Fun

It was the summer, and John Moe was giving serious consideration to getting out of the game.

Last June, American Public Media announced that it was laying off a good chunk of its workforce, citing financial strain due to the global pandemic. Moe was among those who lost their jobs, and as part of that, the company also ended production on his show, The Hilarious World of Depression, which served up frank conversations with various notable people about mental health and drew a passionate following over the years for its work raising awareness around the issue.

When Moe learned about the dismissal, he figured the severance pay would offer him some runway to meditate on what comes next. A veteran on-mic personality who’s worked around the public radio system for over two decades, he was getting tired of the constant anxiety that the business brings.

“It was always nerve-wracking,” he said. “The idea of constantly wondering what the listener reports would say and whether that would be enough to survive, given all the things I probably didn’t know about a company’s finances… it just seemed like a sucker’s game.”

Granted, that kind of thing comes with the territory of any creative work, be it ticket sales or music streams or art gallery fees. He knows this, but still, the grind still takes a toll, and at his middle age, Moe wasn’t sure if he had the nerve for it any more. And so he considered moving on to another life, maybe get a degree in social work and become a therapist. Enough people knew him in the Twin Cities area, he figured. He could probably fill up a few appointments.

Ultimately, he decided against the new life, and last month, Moe’s new project, Depresh Mode, made its debut in podcast feeds everywhere.

Fans won’t find too many differences between Depresh Mode and The Hilarious World of Depression. The fundamental premise is essentially the same, as the new show features Moe once again delivering frank conversations with various notable people about mental health. Hell, it’s called Depresh Mode, in case any Moe fans harbored doubts that his dad humor sensibilities would remain intact. There are some changes, nevertheless: To begin with, the new show strives to broaden discussions out to a fuller range of common mental health topics. There will be some experiments in format, with Moe planning for half of his new episodes to be what he calls “issue episodes,” where the framing isn’t around a profile of a guest but a deep dive into specific issues, like workplace burnout or the long-term trauma effects of COVID.

But again, the underlying show is fundamentally the same, and the fact that Moe is having to basically start all over is rooted in what should now be a familiar imbalance: He didn’t own The Hilarious World of Depression. That intellectual property still belongs to APM.

Moe’s experience getting laid off by APM and subsequently navigating next steps in the podcast world is an interesting and informative one, particularly for any talent or creator who has a reasonable following but is by no means a major celebrity. (Sorry, John.) After all, show cancellations can happen anywhere to almost anyone based on variables far beyond a creator’s knowledge or control.

After news of Moe’s free agency went public back in the summer, he started receiving messages from people and companies throughout the industry interested in working with him. As he tells it, the outreach ran the gamut, ranging from bigger publishers to smaller collectives run by young people he was unfamiliar with. He decided to sign with an agent, CAA’s Josh Lindgren, who also happens to be the agency’s sole operator in the Twin Cities area.

Moe started having conversations with a few places, but a major sticking point quickly made itself known: Several publishers were interested in him and The Hilarious World of Depression as a bundle. This was a problem, obviously, because as previously mentioned, Moe didn’t own the rights to the show. APM did, and the company didn’t prove willing to move much on the subject of intellectual property ownership.

“I had figured I would be able to take the show with me, because it was certainly of no use to APM,” he said. “But they informed me that it wouldn’t be the case.” The company offered to license individual episodes from the archive for what Moe described as “a whole lot of money,” but the cost would significantly cut into the value of any bundle-oriented deal he could take. The final accounting often didn’t make much sense for him.

That took him out of contention for several deals, which were mortally dependent on carrying over the old show’s intellectual property. “I got pretty far down the road with one negotiation, and it just collapsed,” he said. Chalk it up to basic risk aversion: Being able to lean on an existing feed offers some amount of guarantee and predictability around listenership right off the bat, which means that the publisher can sell ads against the show from day one. Having to start a whole new feed means taking a bet that Moe’s following would actually follow him to his new show and, more crucially, migrate over at a pace that the publisher could make work.

Moe’s experience, of course, directly connects to an ongoing discourse dating back to the summer: one about the appropriate balance in value between creators and publishers with respect to intellectual property ownership and project investments. That discussion has typically been pressed forward within the context of race, as creators from underrepresented demographics tend to get hurt the most in existing deal or production structures. But it’s worth highlighting that these imbalances do stretch out to impact just about anybody without the same level of leverage as someone with considerable preexisting power going into the creation of those productions — like, say, a celebrity.

To be clear, I’m broadly familiar with the arguments on the organization side, in this case APM. Sure, they paid for the show’s development, infrastructure, and production costs over the life of the show, and so companies like them often view holding onto the feed and capturing whatever value it might generate over the long tail as something they’re entitled to getting to validate the investment. Further, not moving on ownership is also presumably a point of defense: They invested all those resources in Moe, so why should they let him easily take the product to a competitor without getting some balance in value back? I’m not altogether hostile to the arguments, but the question fundamentally lies in proportion and fairness: Is the long-tail value of that show really worth boxing someone they laid off out of certain economic opportunities?

(When reached for comment on the specific point of still owning The Hilarious World of Depression’s IP, an APM spokesperson replied: “Under federal copyright law, APM still owns the IP rights to the podcast feed. We also addressed this in our letter to listeners that was posted back in June of last year.”)

In any case, Moe eventually decided to work with Maximum Fun, the Los Angeles-based podcast company. As is typically the case with that publisher, Moe owns Depresh Mode in its entirety, with the company providing production support and integrating the show into its primary revenue system, which revolves around a crowdfunded-membership model.

“We were among the many people who were bummed when his old project ended, and are grateful to be working with him on his next one,” said Bikram Chatterji, Maximum Fun’s managing director, when reached for comment. “We were thrilled to collaborate with John because his work has two of the qualities that are absolutely essential to how MaxFun works. First, it’s meant to help people, which is why we do what we do. And second, John’s work means a lot to his audience, which is how a crowdfunding model becomes sustainable.”

For Moe, the pitch was meaningful, as was Maximum Fun’s approach. “More than anybody else, Bikram over there said, ‘Having an established show is great, but we can make a hit show with you doing something just brand new. We think you’re the selling point of the show, not the show title,’” he said.

The new partnership has its demands. Most prominently, Moe will now be making forty-eight episodes a year on Depresh Mode, up from twenty episodes a year, which was the typical production order for The Hilarious World of Depression. It’s a bigger lift, certainly, but on the flip side, the increased load is more than balanced out by the freedoms and benefits that come with full ownership. If he wants to work on a book project, engage in adaptation talks, or indeed, end the show on his own terms, those decisions will ultimately be up to him — and he’ll get to enjoy the full upside of his own actions.

Those freedoms might not be a full panacea to the constant anxiety that the creative life brings, but you can bet it goes a long way.

ICYMI: Vox Media to buy Cafe Studios, publisher of Preet Bharara’s podcast. Ben Mullin over at the Wall Street Journal had the scoop on Sunday evening — who scoops on Sunday evenings! C’mon! — and according to his report, Bharara will join Vox Media as a host, co-founder, and creative director of Cafe, which will be retained as a brand.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed, and Bharara will now report to Marty Moe, the president of Vox Media Studios, which houses the Vox Media Podcast Network along with its various film and television activities. Bharara told the Journal that the decision to sell was in part due to the fact it was “a quicker alternative to fundraising and would create bigger opportunities.” He also noted that they hope to explore future possibilities around scripted programming, documentaries, and live events.

Let’s pause for a sec. This is the point where I should hit the customary: In case you don’t know, I’m a contributor to Vulture, the entertainment vertical of New York Magazine, which Vox Media acquired (or merged with, depending on who’s telling the story) in September 2019. I write criticism, curate a recommendations newsletter, and pull together the occasional story or interview for Vulture, which also syndicates Hot Pod (in fact, you might be reading this column on the site). But I’m very much an independent operator, and in any case, the income I make from Vulture doesn’t make up a huge part of Hot Pod Media’s revenue. I make these disclaimers for three reasons: First, because I guess it’s good form to do so; second, to set up the fact I didn’t see this one coming, though I’m not surprised to see it; and finally, to emphasize just how The Blob/Katamari Damacy-like the contemporary digital media universe tends to be these days — which, coincidentally, is further expressed by this Cafe acquisition story.

You might remember I wrote a column on Cafe Studios fairly recently, as in early February, on the occasion of the company dipping its toe in the narrative format for the first time with Doing Justice. A few pertinent data points from that write-up: Cafe, which spun off from Some Spider Studios sometime last year, specializes in what I’ll call “newsy podcasts hosted by political and legal figures”; its biggest show, Stay Tuned with Preet, averages two million downloads per month and is primarily monetized through advertising; and the company meaningfully diversified out to include a membership business that’s priced at $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year and is said to have “tens of thousands” of paid members.

In an email sent to Vox Media staffers (which, by the way, I did not receive because I’m not on staff but had procured through other means), CEO Jim Bankoff wrote that the company “will invest in growing the Cafe Insider membership program and will explore additional membership opportunities across the Vox Media Podcast Network.” This is interesting, of course, because the state of direct revenue (whether subscription or membership, which are two different models) across Vox Media is somewhat patchworked at the moment. New York Magazine, being originally a print magazine business, has a robust subscription engine, while the broader Vox Media brand has only tentatively experimented with a membership program, at first pursuing a YouTube-led strategy and nowadays organized around a more “donate to support” approach. The emphasis on a membership for the Vox Media’s podcast network in particular, which has mostly been structured around a scale-driven ad business, doesn’t have much precedent within the history of that division.

Two more things: Firstly, Bankoff’s email also notes that Cafe’s entire staff of around thirteen employees will be joining the Vox Media staff, though I’m told that a few executives who straddled operations between Cafe and Some Spider Studios — including Chief Business Officer Geoff Isenman and Some Spider Studios CEO Vinit Bharara, who is also Preet Bharara’s brother — will not be joining Vox Media. Secondly, I’m also told that the Vox Media Podcast Network will be taking over ad sales for Cafe shows in the coming weeks.

For what it’s worth, this move reminds me a lot of Vox Media’s acquisition of Recode in 2015. Not in scale, necessarily: Cafe’s finances are not publicly known beyond guesstimations, as Recode was said to be generating $12 million in revenue at the time of its sale, according to Insider. Rather, I mean more in style: Like Recode, Cafe is a creative-editorial media company led by a very public brand-defining figure, in this case Preet Bharara. Its coverage area, within the overlap of legal and political analysis, presumably also fits well next to proper.

The absorption of Bharara and co. comes at an interesting time for the Vox Media Podcast Network, which saw three of its bigger personalities — Ezra Klein, Kara Swisher, and Jane Coaston — depart for the New York Times Opinion section over the past year, where they now anchor prominent podcasts for the division. (Though Swisher continues to do additional podcast work for Vox Media through Pivot, which she hosts with Scott Galloway, who, by the way, also hosts another podcast of his own, The Prof G Show, which was just brought into the Vox Media Podcast Network from Westwood One. Boy, isn’t this confusing? Isn’t this just a big bowl of spaghetti? Are we all going to work for the same three companies at the same time in the future? Will all the newsletters in the universe be rolled up into AT&T?)

Anyway, the point is: I think the addition of Bharara fills in a really interesting personality-shaped hole in the Vox Media Podcast Network, and if I were them, I’d keep him far away from anybody in any way connected to the New York Times Opinion Audio team.

Selected Notes

➽ Last Thursday, the Writers Guild of America, East announced that The Ringer and Gimlet Media unions have ratified their collective bargaining agreements with Spotify. Both contracts last for three years, and you can find the entire language of the Gimlet agreement here and The Ringer agreement here. Keep in mind, the Parcast union is still in the middle of negotiations.

➽ Clubhouse has hired Grey Munford, Spotify’s head of content communications, Insider reported last Friday. Munford’s new role was not disclosed, but he joins a team of executives (compiled here, again, by Insider) built out of recruits from companies like Netflix, TikTok, and Medium. This is intriguing to me on a purely inside baseball level, and I’m getting genuine YouTube vibes in terms of where this platform seems to want to go.

➽ Relatedly… there appear to be reports that Clubhouse personal user data was leaked online. CEO Paul Davison has disputed those reports.

➽ Yesterday, Libsyn announced that it’s acquiring Glow, the podcast membership startup (think of it as the same category as Supporting Cast or, like, Memberful), for an undisclosed amount. This deal continues the company’s recent run of acquisitions, which includes the $30 million AdvertiseCast pickup a few weeks ago and the Auxbus purchase back in January. The AdvertiseCast deal also came attached to a new $25 million fundraise, part of which was presumably allocated to this Glow purchase. For the unfamiliar, Libsyn is the hosting platform that originated in one of the older generations of podcasting, and with these acquisitions, the company appears to be pushing their way into the conversation surrounding the modern podcast boom, and they strike me as either being poised to position themselves as the open ecosystem-oriented alternative to the consolidation around Spotify — or as another valuable end-to-end podcast technology asset that can be picked up by another media giant hoping to buy its way into the digital audio space. The question on the latter note, however, is who’s left as a possible buyer at this point in time.

➽ Audioboom, which posted record revenues last year, announced this week that it has signed two different deals with the team behind the popular True Crime Obsessed podcast: The first is a long-term exclusive distribution and monetization with the show itself, and the second is a development deal with the Obsessed Network, which the True Crime Obsessed creators founded last year. The Obsessed Network publishes shows like Unjust & Unsolved and Crimes of the Centuries and is said to have driven “more than 10 million downloads in the first year.” UTA brokered the deals.

➽ Higher Ground’s latest podcast offering — the pick-up of Misha Euceph’s Tell Them, I Am, which was one of the shows within the intellectual property discourse that bubbled up last summer — makes its debut (slash return) this week, just in time for Ramadan.

➽ Bijan Stephen is joining Campside Media! For those unfamiliar with the company, I wrote about them last summer.

➽ Amid its various sojourns into television, Two-Up Productions, the studio behind the fiction podcasts Limetown and 36 Questions, is dipping back into the audio pool with Shipworm, which it’s billing as a “feature-length” fiction podcast project. That drops on April 26. Some interesting details I was able to pry: I’m told the project was independently financed out of pocket, had a budget of $257,000, and will be released ad-free for the first two weeks, after which they’ll presumably start running some ads on the whole two-hour-long-ish affair. There is also no adaptation deal or package in place at launch. Seems like a “why not?” sorta situation.

➽ Ben Smith’s Media Equation column on Sunday was just a torrent of Little Scoops Everywhere, but one detail in particular caught my eye: As part of his move to run a Substack full-time, Danny Lavery is giving up his seat as Slate’s Dear Prudence columnist. However, I hear that won’t be the end of his engagements over there. A Slate spokesperson tells me that while Lavery will be departing from the column and associated podcast, he will still be hosting a new podcast for the company that will be “in the spirit of Dear Prudence” though with a different name and format. That project will launch next month. The company is also currently on the hunt for a new person to fill the old Dear Prudence slots.

➽ Shout-out to Lauren Ro, who interviewed the hosts of Time To Say Goodbye for Vulture last week. I just wanna say: Very few pods have become as important to me personally as that show, and it remains perhaps the sole space that has been genuinely useful to me in terms of processing the past few weeks (months?) in particular. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s unrelated that this is a kind of project that probably could never exist under the framework of a larger media organization, and I also think it’s meaningful that the show is distinctly of the “a few people sitting around and talking into microphones, loosely edited” variety that some people like to be snobbish about, but does, in fact, continue to be a very powerful format.

The Modern Challenge of Voice Identity and Anonymity

By Aria Bracci

When someone wants to talk on the record about something that could get them in trouble, they might opt to conceal their identity. For a written piece, they could use a pseudonym (or simple anonymity, like being referred to as “someone familiar with the matter”); for something filmed, they could obscure their face.

In theory, audio offers the best of both these approaches. It separates a person’s face from their words, as written quotes do, while retaining their tone and some expression of their personality. In articles and forums for those considering this move, the major point up for debate is identification: Will they use a middle name? Opt out of a name altogether? In either case, audio anonymity is generally presented as available to anyone who wants it. But focusing on naming is insufficient, as it would be unwise to underestimate how much is still revealed by what remains: the voice, which humans — and, increasingly, computers — are great at recognizing.

Imagine Barack Obama and Donald Trump, says Taylor Abel, a neurosurgeon who leads a research group studying voice and speech perception. The two former presidents, having filled the same role, could have hypothetically been captured speaking in the exact same context, perhaps saying the exact same words. Yet, if you were to listen to parallel recordings, the contrast of their voices would be too extreme for you to mix them up. And even if you took them out of a presidential context and shuffled them in with other people’s voices, odds are you’d still be able to identify them, since, as Abel said over email, “these individuals are unmistakable from the characteristics of their voice alone.”

To recognize a voice, you have to have heard it before, and this ability gets stronger the more you’ve heard of a voice, says Neeraj Sharma, a postdoctoral researcher at the Indian Institute of Science. This makes Obama or Trump an extreme example, since being famous and constantly recorded means it’s pretty likely that listeners could pick someone out. It’s less likely that they’d recognize, say, the voice of an Alabama-based banker that the reporter Camille Petersen interviewed for a radio piece on remote workplace surveillance. But the prospect that someone could recognize him should still give you pause.

When I first listened to Petersen’s report, which she published in September 2020 for The Pulse on WHYY, I found myself questioning the source’s decision to be recorded, since he also requested to remain anonymous. (Disclaimer: I’ve also contributed reporting to The Pulse.) Here was this man, requesting that his name not be included “out of fear of punishment from his employer,” not only giving his general location and field of work but — perhaps more importantly — his voice.

In Petersen’s impression, what the source chose to disclose “gives a decent amount of privacy.” His job security would be at most risk if he were to be recognized by upper-level managers at his company, who ostensibly don’t interact with him enough to recognize him by voice alone. On the other hand, “if someone really knows you” and is “embedded” in your life, says Petersen, “I don’t think it’s really any privacy.” By my estimation, this is in line with Sharma’s understanding.

What stripping away a name does do is remove a direct line between an online presence (e.g., social media profiles) and a recording, though that isn’t completely airtight, either. Even without a source’s name, there is still the matter of searchable keywords, and finding them is made possible by the digital assets that are often associated with modern audio recordings, such as transcripts or articles adapted from the episodes, for those who might prefer to read instead of listen. (This is what you see on the lower part of the page housing Petersen’s piece).

These text-based components are a great way for producers to get in front of more audiences, who can stumble upon shows just by Googling, and written assets in particular accommodate people with impaired hearing. When these components become a liability, however, is when the goal is to be the opposite of discoverable. Petersen’s story in particular was about surveilling remote workers; say the source’s employer suspected workplace grumblings about the practice, set out searching “Alabama” and “bossware,” found Petersen’s piece, and recognized the source’s voice. What then?

Extra care is taken to scrub identifiers from written assets for the podcast Polycurious. This is less for legal reasons than it is for social ones: On the show, host and producer Fernanda and co-host Mariah discuss their experiences with non-monogamous relationships, and “even though part of the mission of the podcast is to destigmatize those things,” says Fernanda, “I cannot ignore the reality that some people are turned off by that.”

“Fernanda” and “Mariah” are not their legal names; they chose to alter how they refer to themselves given existing stigmas about polyamory, and they extend this to written materials for the show. Fernanda’s primary concern is that the family of her boyfriend, who she describes as very religious, wouldn’t approve of her relationship’s openness, so she wants to decrease the likelihood that his relatives could look her up and find this project. Mariah’s primary concern is stigmatization from colleagues, so, in addition to hiding her name, she doesn’t disclose the general field she works in, out of fear that someone within her industry would be able to narrow it down.

The two have collectively taken more steps than Petersen’s source did, though what they still can’t control for is the continued recognizability of their own voices, which they don’t alter in any way. “I have an accent and also an uncommon name,” says Fernanda, for whom “Fernanda” is her real first name. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people who knew me [already] knew who I was if they listened to it.”

Ironically, it’s Mariah who’s been sniffed out, even though she takes more precautions by not using her real first name or disclosing work details (unlike Fernanda, who says in the first episode that she “came to New York about four years ago to do my master’s in journalism”): In the first episode of Polycurious, Mariah mentions her partner, and after that, she says, someone she knew reached out.

“I didn’t even know it was you until you mentioned [his] name,” Mariah recalls them saying. To figure it out, all they needed was a tangential detail — paired, of course, with the sound of her voice.

Many voices aren’t all that different, yet our brains perceive the minute distinctions between them, says Sharma, and exactly how they do that isn’t completely understood. Scientists know that sonic differences signal one speaker to be taller, heavier, or a different sex than the other, but to us, once we take in these differences and process them, they just mean that one speaker is a stranger and the other is our mom. And since scientists don’t exactly know how we get from A to B, it’s hard to make computers replicate the process. But, Sharma says, “that’s where machine learning comes in.”

Programs for machine learning, which is a category of artificial intelligence, do indeed learn. In a process referred to as “training,” says Sharma, you continually feed a program recordings of one person’s voice and reinforce that the voice belongs to that particular person; eventually, upon “hearing” a novel recording of that same voice, the program would tell you, with pretty high certainty, who it belongs to.

For now, Sharma says, “there is no open-access website where you can take a clip and drop, and it will tell you this voice is of this person, but I won’t be surprised if somebody makes it available.”

What’s more, databases already exist to help voice-recognition technology get better at this skill, he says — and guess where those databases pull recordings from? TikTok. Eventually, someone won’t need to have ever heard your voice to be able to verify that it’s yours; a computer will have already heard it, and a person could just ask.

The melding of human and computer processes is chilling, and at its core is an overwhelmingly complex ability that we already possess. The acquaintance of Mariah who found her out, after all, wasn’t using machine learning; they were using their ear. And they’re not the only one.

“I got a Facebook message the other day from a teacher I had in high school who said, ‘I heard you on NPR. I heard your voice!’” says Petersen. “That’s interesting,” she recalls thinking. “You haven’t talked to me in ten years.”

Welcome (Back) to Depresh Mode