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Can Podcasting Account for Its Workers?

Photo: Matriarch Media Network

You are, as they say, what you measure. This is a well understood and commonly circulated idea, but I tend to favor the flipped proposition: You can’t fix what you don’t track.

For Twila Dang, the thing she’s hoping to track is the general condition of BIPOC women in podcasting: the nature of their experiences, the problems they face in their respective workplaces, the friction points holding up the recruitment pipeline and preventing them from advancing in their positions, and the frustrations driving them out of the industry altogether. As a woman of color in the audio business herself, she’s acutely familiar with the challenges met by her demographic peers, which is why she’s working to press the point and make them more visible.

Under the banner of Matriarch Digital Media, her Minneapolis-based independent podcast network, Dang organized a survey project towards that end, and last week, the survey was rolled out to the public for the first time seeking respondents.

Sponsored by the Knight Foundation and WoMN ACT (previously known as the Minnesota Women’s Consortium), the study intends to begin by conducting a landscape analysis of who’s working in the podcast industry overall — which is to say, you should consider filling out the survey, regardless of your demographic — before proceeding to run more specific analysis on the collected data that’s focused on the respondents who identify as BIPOC women.

The information produced by this survey will be much welcomed, as there hasn’t been all that much research done on the state of workers in the podcast industry to date. As far as I can tell, the last noticeable effort was undertaken by WNYC as part of the Werk It Festival, the public radio organization’s conference event aimed at women in podcasting. That took the form of a focused salary survey whose findings remain incredibly useful, but there remains so much more about the experience of workers in the podcast business left to be uncovered. “All of our research in the industry tends to be about who listens,” said Dang. “We don’t talk at all about who works in this business.”

The survey itself isn’t very long, probably taking most people no longer than ten minutes to fill the whole thing out. Question clusters run along a few different lines, but the one that stands out to me in particular revolves around the nature and volume of job responsibilities in relation to the respondent’s title and compensation. Given the rising discourse around burnout and the consistent undervaluing of producers, I’m very interested to see what comes out from that section of the study.

The scope of the survey is meant to cover a wide range of experiences, from full-time employees working at various organizations to individuals working independently or in small teams. This is appropriate, of course, given the still-flexible nature of the podcast ecosystem where big publishers and solo operators continue to compete in the same pool. “We need to know that it’s not just, like, the fifteen big companies making podcasts today, but also the many people who are basically doing what I’m doing,” said Dang. “My company is small, but we make money and we actually employ people. We’re part of that discussion about the pipeline.” Further worth noting: The survey additionally intends to capture responses from those who work in roles outside of creative production, like marketing and sales.

When I asked Dang why she felt compelled to pursue this survey project, she talked about a few dynamics within the podcast world that have increasingly become a point of concern for her in recent years, as the industry continues to grow and attract participants from adjacent media businesses, often legacy types.

“I got into podcasts because I couldn’t make any movement in radio,” said Dang, who also works at Minnesota Public Radio as a host and producer. “And a lot of what we know about traditional media is that it’s not about you. It’s about what they envision in the seat, or in the chair, or behind the booth. If they don’t see you as an option, you’re not going to get a shot. I was starting to see that happening in podcasting, and I hated it.”

She added: “As the industry started to expand, we’re seeing lots of people coming in from other parts of the media — it was ‘oh, longtime producer at this station, or that longtime television producer.’ It leaves no room for the rest of us, and what I knew from my experience as a woman in podcasting is, a lot of the ‘rest of us’ were women, and a lot of those women were women of color. So I just thought, ‘Can we have a conversation about that?’”

Collaborating with her assistant, Lauren Fisher, she initially envisioned the survey as a localized project, somewhat smaller in scope. Her thinking shifted when the Knight Foundation reached out and eventually pledged $20,000, which was just enough to fund the study. The money allowed Dang to recruit professional researchers — Brandeis Marshall, PhD; Thema Monroe-White, PhD; and Danielle Veal — to help design and build out the survey framework.

“They helped us take all of the ideas and turn them into an actual structured set of questions that we can use as a starting point,” said Dang. Fisher, who also works as an administrator for Matriarch Digital, currently operates as the project manager for the study. (Everyone working on the project is being paid, it should be noted, except for Dang herself.)

Dang frames the survey as a first phase of sorts, noting that the materialization of future steps will likely depend on whether she’ll be able to secure more funding. At the very least, though, she intends to produce a white paper on the first set of results from the data collected in this landscape-analysis stage. She has plans to present the initial findings at the upcoming Podcast Movement conference, to be held in person in August.

However things shake out for the future of the survey, the information that this first phase hopes to produce will already be valuable. On a very basic level, this kind of data, publicly circulated, could provide a strong and visible starting point for workers in the podcast business — BIPOC women and otherwise — to independently map and make assessments about their working conditions. This, in turn, could contribute to the ability of workers throughout the industry to better advocate for themselves, both individually and as a collective.

“When you don’t know enough, you might not feel confident about your value, and that impacts your response when people start asking how you should be compensated for a given project,” said Dang. “A lot of these organizations prey on that. They expect you to be grateful that they gave you an opportunity, which means that you shouldn’t ask for more.”

In the past, this kind of information was typically circulated, if at all, through informal, private networks. But the trouble with informal networks disproportionately functioning as a primary source of such information in non-union contexts is that the worker has to know it exists in the first place. And then they have to find their way into those networks, which isn’t necessarily easy for everyone. It’s also not equally accessible, differing in frictions based on geographic origin, class, where you went to school, and so on.

A public-facing survey like this one would mark a solid step towards opening up that type of information for more people, and, as Dang argues, the focus on BIPOC women is foundational to setting the tone for better system-wide outcomes.

“I have a mentor who always tells me: You have to be thinking about who the most vulnerable people are in your organization, because if you know who they are in your organization, and you figure out how to protect them, the entire organization will improve because everyone will be protected,” she said. “We don’t do that in our industry. We don’t do that across most industries. But with podcasting, we have the opportunity. It’s still growing. It can still define what it wants to be.”

To find and fill out the survey, go here.

Apple Podcast Subscriptions Go Live

Support for the much-anticipated feature came bundled with the iOS 14.6 update that rolled out yesterday. According to The Verge, the update also allows Apple Music subscribers to enable lossless audio, which is something I think a specific slice of people care a lot about?

In related news, Apple has also added its podcast platform to the Apple Services Performance Partner Program, colloquially known as the Apple affiliate program, which basically does what every other affiliate system on the internet does: offers incentives for publishers and their marketing partners to widely distribute links to their products distributed over the Apple infrastructure. (Think The Wirecutter or Kinja Deals.)

In this case, the product is any show using the Apple Podcast Subscriptions tool, and as for the incentives, those who link out to those paid subscription listings will get 50% on the first paid month of every subscription membership they convert.

The affiliate stuff is an interesting addition, I suppose, but I’m still generally skeptical as to whether Apple Podcasts Subscriptions as a whole will be a worthwhile proposition for most podcast creators. Not to discount the potential value of frictionless subscriptions within the Apple Podcasts app context, but the 30% first-year revenue cut on top of the fact the subscription tool only applies to the Apple Podcasts app — which remains not great in many ways — seems way too much cost for the potential value you get back, at least for anybody that isn’t a major publisher with robust, diversified business engines already humming.

The addition of the affiliate program does little to shift that equation, in my opinion. I continue to suspect that most Patreon-using folks are best off leaving things as is.

Oof, the Media

Ben Smith over at The New York Times looked into the Bob Garfield/On The Media situation over at New York Public Radio, and as you would expect from that organization given its particular history, the story didn’t end up being just the one thing, but one of many, many, many things.

While there are a few framing things in there that understandably rub some people the wrong way, Smith’s resulting column does lay out the current shape of the tensions at the station in the post-Laura-Walker era. That stuff had previously spilled out into the public last summer, when NYPR staffers expressed frustration with the hiring of Audrey Cooper, a white woman, as WNYC’s new editor-in-chief after an extensive period of “listening sessions” held by the organization’s new Goli Sheikholeslami-led management where staffers emphasized the need for more diverse organizational leadership. It seems that the frustrations have only deepened since, and as Smith’s column lays out, it sits on top of several other tensions that have long simmered at the station, including structural ones between producers and hosts, workers and “stars,” legacy and digital, those with power and those without.

Put simply, things continue to seem like a mess at NYPR, and it’s entirely reasonable to find yourself wondering whether an organization with that much historical baggage can be changed from the inside.

If NYPR or its place in the audio world means anything to you, be sure to dig through Smith’s column yourself. There’s a lot of details and textures I can’t even begin to touch on here. Well, maybe I’ll flag just one more: On Sunday, SAG-AFTRA filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against New York Public Radio in response to “a coordinated and aggressive campaign to undermine union and protected and concerted activity.”

Much Ado About Celebs

Over at The Guardian, Fiona Sturges asks a question that’s been on a lot of minds in podcast land for a bit: “Are celebrities ruining podcasting?”

It’s a good entry point into the question, though I should say versions of this question are equally applicable to many other contexts. “Are celebrities running children’s books?” “Are celebrities ruining the voice-over industry?” And so on.

Of course, the root of what we’re talking about here is anxiety over what can feel like a small, zero-sum pie. This feeling is understandably held by podcast-native creators who are concerned that relatively powerful celebrities are pushing them out of opportunities or value, whether we’re talking about advertising interest or, more simply, potential listeners. Whether or not the pie is actually zero sum is worth some debate, but there’s no denying that the heavy influx of celebrities into podcasting carries a strong waft of… dare I say, digital gentrification.

Anyway, check out the column, and while you’re there, do poke around Sturges’s archive more generally. I’ve been really enjoying her podcast coverage.

Selected Notes

➽ This week, PRX’s Radiotopia is launching Radiotopia Presents, a new podcast feed dedicated to one-off, limited-run projects from independent creators. If the concept sounds familiar, that’s because it is: The network had previously operated a similarly premised feed between 2017 and 2019 called Showcase. The first release under the new banner will be Blind Guy Travels, featuring Matthew Shifrin with production and sound design by Ian Coss. That drops on June 2.

➽ Radio Ambulante Estudios has struck a partnership with VICE Audio that will see the parties co-produce future episodes of El hilo, the former’s weekly Spanish-language podcast covering global news from a Latin-American perspective hosted by Eliezer Budasoff and Silvia Viñas. (For more background, I wrote about El hilo when it debuted in March 2020.)

➽ Big press push around Max Linsky’s new feel-good/hard-talk podcast, 70 Over 70, in the past week, including glowing previews by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

➽ Another week, another torrent of Slate announcements: The publisher has relaunched The Waves, its long-running conversational podcast about “feminism, sexuality, and how gender affects our lives.” Produced by Cheyna Roth, the new iteration of the show will adopt a rotating approach to hosting, pulling people from its staff or freelance contributor pool based on the story, theme, or topic they’re looking to unpack in a given week. Also, Danny Lavery’s new advice-with-guest podcast for Slate, Big Mood, Little Mood, launches today, and its first episode with Maintenance Phase host and SELF columnist Aubrey Gordon. (Maintenance Phase, by the way, great show.)

➽ Meanwhile, in the social-audio corner of the universe, Clubhouse claims that, just a few weeks after rolling out its Android app, more than a million Android users have joined the service. The company also noted that they expected the Android version to reach parity with the Apple version within the next two weeks. Also, from NPR: “Clubhouse Becomes An Emotional Meeting Place For Israelis And Palestinians.”

What Should a Book Podcast Sound Like?

By Aria Bracci

Imagine this: You’re reading a book that uses quite a bit of slang and often alludes to pop culture, and you don’t understand a lot of it. You might get hung up on this, had you not listened to a companion podcast for the book, which dedicated an episode to each chapter and ran through any jargon and insider references you were about to hear.

This podcast doesn’t exist, at least not to my knowledge. I started to fantasize about the concept when I saw a tweet from someone named Sammy, whose father was reading a novel and had stopped 21 times, by his recollection, to look up unfamiliar phrases within the writing. Not even a week later, my own dad was reading a book, this one non-fiction, and he, too, kept stopping and looking up words. Neither pops was likely the intended reader for either of these books — Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters and Phoebe Robinson’s Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, respectively — but here they were, reading them. And they were having trouble.

In both of these books, like in many books, there are phrases that aren’t necessarily crucial to making sense of a scene or essay; they get tossed in for color, like a reality-TV reference that makes a character’s response feel more believable. The authors of the aforementioned books don’t always expand on these phrases, presumably because a lot of them aren’t essential. An uninitiated reader, though, might still pause and try to figure out what they mean, in case they’re important for their understanding of the text — which, sometimes, they are — making for a pretty choppy reading experience. (Also, it’s worth asking: If they’re so unessential that they don’t warrant defining, why are they all over the place?)

There had to be a more streamlined way to unpack these potential roadblocks, I thought, and a before-you-read podcast seemed like a good fit. It could hypothetically prevent all the stop-and-go jerkiness by clearing things up before they arise, and there were three reasons why I felt that audio would be the right format: 1) Technically anyone could make a resource like this, so it felt logistically possible, 2) a non-written resource could complement a written one nicely, and 3) I write about audio. I’m biased.

The closest thing I could find to this was The Bible Recap, a daily podcast that provides a quick dissection of a specific part of that religious text. Perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise that if a granular, comprehension-based podcast were to exist, it would accompany a religious text, since interpretation of such texts has historically been both embraced and disputed, precisely because it is believed to be the key to unlocking significant revelations in people’s lives.

Here, The Bible Recap aligns with a 365-day reading schedule, and the listener is expected to have looked over the corresponding psalms before host Tara-Leigh Cobble explains them. The episode from May 14, for example, breaks down what the Bible means when it says that God “covers” people when they sin: It’s like how a friend spots you at a restaurant if you forget your wallet, “except God’s covering is for more than just a steak dinner.”

A close second is Kurt Vonneguys, a book-by-book exploration of Vonnegut’s collection, hosted by Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim. Largely a series of winding conversations about the author’s choices and various readers’ reactions to them, the show operated for about a year and a half and occasionally integrated input from listeners, many of whom, Schmidt says, were existing fans of Vonnegut. The impetus for starting the show was that he and Swaim were fans, too, and wanted a space to talk about his work. This is reflected in the episodes’ long length, joke-filled discussions, and tendency to be less educational than digressive (“digressive” being a descriptor the hosts themselves embrace for the show). For example, the story Cat’s Cradle, rather than being likened to something that someone who’s new to the books might recognize, is described as “so Vonnegut-y,” “like main-lining Kurt Vonnegut crack.”

In writing this piece, I wasn’t finding anything quite like what I was looking for (and, readers, let me know if there’s something I’m missing). Neither show is meant to be listened to before reading their respective books, like I was imagining, and Schmidt and Swaim, unlike Cobble, didn’t even expect listeners to read along as they progressed through the episodes. Both of the aforementioned shows did have some neat features that brought them close to aligning with my vision, though: The Bible Recap splits its text into episodes, mirroring the easy-to-navigate format I pictured, and though Kurt Vonneguys tackled entire books in one go and didn’t really exist to clarify references or define words — at least beyond the phrases the pair highlights in the segment “Vocab Quiz!” purely because they sound cool — it did come with time stamps to help listeners navigate through the things the hosts did talk about.

Both The Bible Recap and Kurt Vonneguys, though, are ultimately pretty open ended. Both drift into abstract concepts and tangents. They’re human. This is more so true with Kurt Vonneguys, because things change shape in real time when there’s more than one host, but even the latter takes on big questions and loosey-goosey analogies. (Remember the steak?)

These shows are more or less audio book clubs, which, in practice, are pretty open ended, too. Sure, you might show up to a book-club meeting and be like, “Okay, I did NOT get what was going on in that chapter,” and your fellow readers are how you gain clarity and meaning, but “meaning,” even in that example, can stretch beyond a basic definition. A real-life book club could hypothetically provide the meaning of a word @mazel_toph’s father didn’t understand (say, “U-Haul,” which, when used as a verb, refers to a stereotype of queer women living together early in a relationship) but what a book club could also do is unpack the meaning of that stereotype, providing a place and time to examine if the trope has any legs, what it says about queerness, why it’s used, who wields power when they use it, etc.

What’s more, this interpretive human element, which might attract people to book clubs in the first place, is also what leads many people to podcasts, says Isaac Lee, a producer and sound designer for The Ringer. Perhaps that’s why the podcasts that do approximate what I was imagining feel more like discussing a book over drinks and less like reading dry CliffsNotes. I do still think that having concrete answers and definitions in one place would be helpful (plus, if an author isn’t giving those out, what’s stopping fans and readers from packing them into bite-sized recordings?) but Lee was resistant to the format I was imagining for audio, and I wanted to hear him out.

Lee has produced The Ringer’s Binge Mode since 2017, for which hosts Jason Concepcion (now at Crooked Media) and Mallory Rubin have dissected such things as Game of Thrones and Marvel movies. Lee and I specifically talked about Binge Mode’s Harry Potter iteration, which covered books, but the show didn’t just “cover” them — it kind of blasted them open, because, as Lee says, there are “ethical and sentimental and entertaining lessons to be learned from Harry Potter.” Focusing on these kinds of abstract takeaways gave listeners something to chew on long term, which is presumably why people who wanted to deepen their reading of Harry Potter came to the show, not a Wikipedia page. And having the discussions be led by Concepcion and Rubin, who brought their personal connections and senses of humor to the conversation, kept listeners engaged moment to moment, which Lee says is particularly crucial when working with audio, since you can’t use visuals to keep people’s attention. Using a podcast to list definitions, he says, just wouldn’t work.

“If you’re just presenting information, there’s no relatability,” says Lee, whose impression is that presenting information is instead best done with the written word, where you don’t risk people zoning out because their eyes aren’t occupied. Examples of this are the various articles that run through the references Anna Wiener makes in her book Uncanny Valley; when you read those pieces, you get only their information, and the articles’ authors take a backseat.

Another reason Lee doesn’t think podcasts are the right place for this kind of surface-level comprehension, he says, is because audio is complicated to make. “It takes a lot of effort to make a podcast,” he says. “I wish that the medium was utilized more correctly than something that, in my opinion, sounds pretty cheap, that you could just make as a list or a glossary.”

For what it’s worth, Schmidt, of Kurt Vonneguys, mostly agreed: Written pieces are “useful resources for that kind of thing,” he said. But when I described my vision of audio as a tool for comprehending books, he seemed to change his mind. “I love that as a thing,” he said. “I think audio, and podcasting especially, where you can pick it up and put it down as a listener, is the perfect medium for that.”

I don’t think we have to pick just one reality. We could have shows like Binge Mode or Kurt Vonneguys, which take the “club” parts of a book club and really bring you in for a comprehensive, insider conversation about a story’s events and implications. And we can have shows like I’m imagining, too. After all, while I used those exact articles that I linked above while reading Uncanny Valley, the information came too late and was very unhelpfully pooled together, rather than being sectioned out by chapters. I would’ve loved for it to have been more readily available while I read, perhaps in the form of a podcast.

At the end of the day, of course, even if these types of shows do emerge, I acknowledge an outstanding problem: It’ll be a challenge to identify exactly which references and phrases need defining. Everybody comes to writing from a different place, and what’s clear to one person might mean nothing to another.

While writing this article, my mom texted me about a gift I’d gotten her that was en route, according to a shipping notification. “T.I.A” she wrote. I had to look it up. (It means “thanks in advance.”) Silly, sure, and maybe something I should’ve known, but I didn’t — and what podcast could’ve prepared me for that?

Can Podcasting Account for Its Workers?