This article first ran in Hot Pod, an industry-leading trade newsletter about podcasting by Nick Quah.
It hasn’t been the smoothest rollout for Apple’s highly anticipated push into the provision of paid podcast tools, which the company originally announced with much pomp and circumstance — “Apple leads the next chapter of podcasting with Apple Podcasts Subscriptions,” declared the official press release — on April 20.
The iOS 14.5 update, released shortly after the Subscriptions press push, ended up injecting an unsettling amount of instability into the Apple Podcasts infrastructure. Users encountered a sharp uptick in bugs and brand-new user experience frictions, partially documented by MacRumors here, while more than a few podcast publishers reported experiencing what can be described as alarmingly fundamental problems releasing new content over the platform.
Those publisher-side issues appear to have largely tapered off over the past few weeks (though, not completely), presumably due to fixes contained in a subsequent update that was released in late May. The user-side experience, however, seem to have gotten considerably worse, in that updates to the Apple Podcasts app specifically has made the thing more frustrating than it already is. (Fast Company’s Joe Berkowitz puts this to words better than I could — seriously, what the hell.) Then, a few days after that rollout, the company sent podcast creators an email announcing that it was pushing back the release of its Subscriptions features to June 15. (Apple had initially provided a vague release date for Subscriptions, with its April press release simply pegging the timeline to “next month.”)
So, yeah, like I said, not the smoothest rollout, but in any case, we’re finally here, at long last, on the day of Apple leading the podcast world into what is supposedly its next chapter — though, of course, a reminder that the concept of paid podcasting is far from a new phenomenon. Unless there are other big changes, we should see Apple post an update around this official roll-out on its press site in a few hours.
A few establishing notes at this point. To begin with, I’d like to reiterate my moderate skepticism on the potential value and impact of Apple Podcasts Subscriptions. The 30% first-year cut (which drops down to 15% from the second year onward) strikes me as being too steep for most podcast creators that aren’t already large publishers, especially when combined with the fact that its facilitated subscriptions are only limited to Apple platforms. That limitation is key to consider, because if you’re a publisher with a direct-revenue business model that intends to use Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, you’re going to have to double your workflow in order to manage an additional subscription channel using an alternative tool (say, Spotify, Patreon, or Supporting Cast) to serve non-Apple users. That’s fine if you have a decently sized staff able to handle that additional work, but it could be an intolerable pain if you’re a solo operator or a small team that’s already stretched thin to simply get episodes out the door. Indeed, smaller operations are presumably better off sticking to an alternative platform that’s already capable of serving both Apple and non-Apple users within the same technical context (like… well, Spotify, Patreon, or Supporting Cast). To extrapolate: Apple Podcasts Subscriptions strikes me as being more beneficial for larger publishers than smaller publishers, bringing to mind a possible future in which the tool drives greater differences between the haves and the have-nots of the podcast business.
In theory, what Apple offers with its Podcast Subscriptions product is the upside of leveraging the combination of the company’s locked-in user base and superior user experience to drive more paid subscriber conversions. After all, there’s a huge portion of Apple-using people who already have a credit card saved in their Apple account profiles, and all they’d need to do is tap a button in order to become a paid subscriber to a podcast using Apple’s tools.
There is, of course, a broader contextual point to clock about this state of affairs: Some could argue that Apple’s superior user experience comes as a direct result of the platform structurally dampening the experience of competing alternatives. Consider, for example, the case of Spotify’s own recently launched podcast subscriptions tool, where potential paid subscribers are pushed to a webpage outside of the Spotify app in order to enter and complete their payments. It’s a real hassle. Now, I’m in no position to unpack the fight and fairness of these platform dynamics, as this is a much larger story that will continue to be played out for who knows how long, but I just felt it prudent to point out.
I also think it’s worth, at this juncture, evoking the concept that there are different kinds of paid subscribers, and that the ease of Apple Podcasts Subscriptions’ payments experience could very well contribute to the expansion of a specific type of paid podcast subscriber: namely, casual ones. This would be a positive development, certainly, but one that should be appraised with some nuance. Think, for a moment, about the kind of person who would muscle their way through the relatively convoluted frictions of becoming a paid subscriber to a podcast over, say, Patreon, and then compare them to the kind of person who only became a paid subscriber because it’s easier to do so. These two types of paid subscribers carry two different kinds of longer-term value; maybe they should be identified separately, and served differently as an extension of that.
Last thing. Separate and apart from my moderate skepticism about this Apple Podcasts Subscriptions push, I find the manner in which the company has handled the disruptions of the past few weeks to be genuinely unsettling. Beyond the instabilities and usability problems themselves, what frustrated many podcast publishers (and myself, watching from afar) about this stretch has been the company’s poor communication with the podcast-publishing community in the midst of this infrastructural turmoil. A common complaint that came bundled with the tips on Apple Podcasts problems flowing into my inbox was the charge that the company’s publisher-support systems were painfully slow and obtuse relative to other platforms. This does not breed confidence, let alone faith, and I suspect it puts podcast creators in an incredibly difficult position. I get the sense that the current state of the podcast ecosystem doesn’t yet feel like a situation where Spotify truly exists as a real counterbalancing second option for publishers — so long as Apple owns the phones, and so long as Spotify gleefully blurs the lines between publisher and distributor — which means that the health of most podcast publishers are still always going to be beholden to Apple’s choices and slip-ups in one form or another. This state of affairs, furthermore, is made even worse by the fact that, despite the uptick in Apple’s activities around podcasting, it still feels like the company as a whole continues to not take seriously the needs and potential of the ecosystem that it has inadvertently fostered over the past decade, as partly evidenced by the Apple Podcasts app’s recent sharp drop in basic usability. As far as podcasts are concerned, this simply doesn’t seem like a company that’s really listening.
Spotify Announces Exclusive Deal With Call Her Daddy’s Alexandra Cooper
Upon looking at The Joe Budden Podcast’s impact on Spotify’s listening metrics back when that show was made exclusively available on the platform, CEO Daniel Ek was reported to have said “Let’s do 1,000 of these.”
The past few years have seen that intent bear out, as the company proceeded to forge exclusive deals with The Joe Rogan Experience, the Obamas, the former Royals, and more recently, Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, among other marquee names. The sentiment to sign a thousand of these deals is obviously a superlative turn of phrase, but some days, I wouldn’t blame you if you were to take Ek’s declaration literally. At this point, who truly knows.
The past week saw yet another deal about thrown onto the exclusivity pile. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Spotify is “nearing a deal” that would bring Alexandra Cooper, along with her popular sex-and-relationships-themed comedy podcast Call Her Daddy, exclusively to the service, with sources telling the Journal that the deal could be valued at $20 million. The deal was officially announced today, with the podcast leaving Barstool and slated to go exclusive on Spotify starting on July 21.
There is, as you might recall, a more ornate story around Call Her Daddy. Originally launched in 2018 as part of Barstool Sports by Cooper and Sofia Franklyn, the podcast became embroiled in an ownership-related flare-up last year between the two hosts and Barstool Sports. There was a publishing blackout, a public messaging battle that took place across the podcast feed and Instagram, and Spurs-era Kawhi Leonard levels of behind-the-scenes politicking that audiences were only privy to in flashes and glimpses. All this, it should be noted, played out in a way that fit sideways into ascendant industry-wide themes about intellectual property, the relationship between creators and media companies, and how the risk-reward split should be allocated within the framework of that relationship. (This is a wildly abbreviated summation of events, and I recommend reading The New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz’s piece for a fuller accounting.) The flare-up ultimately led to a restructuring of the deal, along with the departure of co-host Franklyn to launch her own independent show, Sofia with an F. Today’s official announcement of the deal seals a dramatic next chapter in that particular saga.
Anyway, all this context is largely set dressing for the central industry story here, which continues to revolve around Spotify’s continued push to build a core of talent-driven, listener-heavy, exclusive programming as part of its bid to realize its ambition as the all-consuming pillar of the new audio economy, and beyond.
On that note, here’s something else to consider: In its blog post summarizing the shape of last year’s streams on the platform, Spotify highlighted Call Her Daddy as being the fifth-most-popular podcast on its service. The Joe Rogan Experience topped that list, while The Michelle Obama Podcast came in fourth, which means three out of the five most popular podcasts on the Swedish audio platform last year are now Spotify exclusives.
The other two shows, by the way, are TED Talks Daily and The Daily. Now, I doubt the Times would ever let its flagship audio franchise go exclusive to Spotify, but the other one… who knows.
Speaking of Spotify…
Reply All Returns With Its First Post-’Test-Kitchen’ Release
The episode, “Search Party,” published last Thursday, marks something of a return to what could be argued as the show’s “roots,” featuring co-host Alex Goldman mounting an inquiry into weird-esque Internet with guest tech reporters Ashley Feinberg and Katie Notopoulos.
It’s decidedly lighter fare, though meta-observers would note a distinctly toe-dipping vibe that comes in the wake of the Test-Kitchen-related scandal earlier this year that led to a reckoning at Reply All and Gimlet Media along with the departures of founding co-host PJ Vogt and longtime staffer Sruthi Pinnamaneni from the show. At the time, Reply All’s future was left a little uncertain, though the remaining team released an update in late April announcing that it would continue under Goldman and Emmanuel Dzotsi, who was made co-host last September.
How does a podcast chart a course forward in the aftermath of a highly visible scandal that struck at its very identity and persona? A version of that question was asked in a piece by The Guardian, which was published on the day of Reply All’s return. When presented with the article by a listener, the show’s chatty Twitter account replied, “Guess we’ll find out.” Indeed.
In Other News About Returns…
Here’s the first one: Rory and Mal, the former co-hosts on The Joe Budden Podcast who were fired by Budden last month in the midst of an extensive period of multi-directional controversy and conflict, launched their own podcast on Friday. Intriguingly, the show, called New Rory and Mal, is available on Spotify, which is a platform that new episodes of The Joe Budden Podcast are not available on following Budden’s contentious departure from the Swedish streaming platform.
And here’s the second one: Bari Weiss, the controversial op-ed writer who left The New York Times last summer citing “constant bullying by colleagues” in her publicly posted resignation letter, launched a new podcast last week, Honestly, that extends the work she’s been doing independently on her Substack, called Common Sense, since the start of the year.
In April, The Daily Beast had reported that Weiss was “close to inking a deal to launch a major podcast project,” and that she was enlisting Andy Mills, her former Times colleague who left in February after the Caliphate scandal as well as renewed scrutiny around his past workplace conduct, to join the venture. The podcast’s debut last Wednesday bore no credits at the end of its 30-minute runtime, so it remains unclear whether an external publisher or studio is involved with the project. Same goes with Mills’ involvement, though there is word of an Instagram post floating around that confirms as much…
Deep read. I’m only tangentially clued in to the goings on of h3h3Productions — the wildly popular digital media operation led by the husband-wife duo Ethan and Hila Klein that sits cleanly at the intersection of creator culture, YouTube, and podcasting — in the sense that I only have a rough grasp on the team’s crusading exploits, and that I mostly dip in and out of the H3 podcast depending on the guest. This means that I was in sore need of heavier context around the Trisha-Paytas-Ethan-Klein-Frenemies situation that’s been playing out over the past few weeks.
Thank goodness, then, for all the fine souls on the Extremely Online/YouTube beat. There’s a lot baked into this story, and for those interested, I’d start with the brief Vulture post by Zoe Haylock, then head over to the longer Insider explainer by Lindsay Dodgson and Sirena Bergman, then hit up Slate’s ICYMI podcast by Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher for a lot more background on Paytas, and then generally stay on Kelsey Weekman’s Twitter feed.
Self-promo. For the most recent New York Magazine’s print issue, I reviewed the latest season of Slow Burn, which took on the events and mistakes leading up to the Iraq War. One side thing I’d like to express that I felt was inappropriate to include in the actual review: I found myself really taken aback by how the season handled the execution of its wine club ad. It’s excessive!
Speaking of Slate… Decoder Ring returns today, in its new seasonal publishing format. I, for one, am very glad to hear this. One thing to note: The company is releasing all episodes at once for Slate Plus members, while everyone else gets new episodes weekly.
Hell House. The Verge’s Ashley Carman published an absolute wildfire of a feature last week about HiStudios, the podcast studio spun out of the Chinese audio giant Ximalaya, which devolved into an oozing, abusive pile of idiocy under the supervision of one individual, Peter Vincer. Stupid money (or fictitious stupid money) brings stupid behavior, and we’re all worse off for it.
AIR Media’s New Voices program has opened applications. The program, which runs from August to December of this year, will remain virtual. More details here.
American Public Media has struck a “multi-year strategic deal” with Cadence13, which will see the latter serve as the exclusive podcast sales rep for the public radio organization. More details here.
The Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural podcast selections are now almost fully available, and you can find them on this page. I’m still making my way through the picks, though I’m liking most of what I’ve heard so far. In particular: Hot White Heist, which I got previews for, and Vermont Ave., because, listen, I’ll pick up anything that James Kim is putting down. Might revisit some of these in future issues, or in 1.5x Speed.
Interaction Is Key: One Theater Company’s Take on Audio Immersion
By Aria Bracci
If consuming live theater was part of your pre-pandemic life, you were probably forced to consider alternative forms of entertainment over the past year. Alternatives weren’t as plentiful, though, for the people who’d ordinarily create such theater. Of those who continued their practice, some put on audio-only shows, while others notably turned to TikTok. But for Dr. Katie Turner, a theater-history lecturer at San Diego State University, there were limits to these adaptations: These options often compromised the back-and-forth energy inherent in live, human art.
“To me, it was so insufficient as a performer and as a viewer,” Turner recalls. “Like watching TV, but not as good.”
When you take in a live performance, its actors and production team are actively contributing to the work. That’s showbiz, baby — it’s not a quiet, passive experience. Early in the pandemic, Turner and San Diego State student J’Arrian Wade, who brought concerns about the current state of theater to Turner’s office hours, wondered what they could do about this, how they could use existing platforms and materials to develop something more in line with the live, engaging art they’d come to love.
They’d work with audio, they decided. Without visual elements, the audience’s imagination could participate in ways that weren’t possible when it was confined to a handful of Zoom squares. What’s more, one thing that would kick the experience up to the next level is the fact that they’d also ask the audience to play along. Cue Turnkey Theatre, the company Turner and Wade created to deliver original audio plays accompanied by tangible scene-specific props, which are shipped to people’s homes and meant to engage audiences as they listen. It joins the ranks of similar efforts that sprang up in the vacuum of person-to-person art, but this one’s here to stay, even as theaters reopen their doors.
Turner had been getting into “immersive theater” before the pandemic, putting on site-specific performances like Fefu and Her Friends, which took place within an era-appropriate house and limited audiences to such a size that they could fit in the rooms alongside the actors. (It brings to mind the production of Sleep No More, the immersive reimagining of Macbeth that has attendees following theatrical action all around a hotel.) Sound design has also historically been a major feature in the shows Turner has produced, since it can conjure up non-visible or entirely imaginary elements of a scene — an especially important tool in the theater world, where budgets and physical sets are often much smaller than those of movies and therefore rely on the imaginary. Put those two things together, and interactive audio theater seemed to Turner and Wade like the perfect approach for pandemic-era engagement.
Audio plays have existed for nearly a century, pioneering (and continuing to champion) evocative and convincing sound design. In the context of forced isolation, though, any experience that you just sit back and enjoy didn’t feel, to Turner and Wade, like it would be enough. This might not have been the case were an audio play to be performed as a live broadcast, as many were in the early 20th century and which made them an inherently communal experience, but, alas, that would not be the case for this small team, so they’d need to up the energy another way: asking the audience to respond and move along with the story.
In order to do this, audience members would need some literal, physical tools. Turnkey’s first work, Homecoming: A Meditation on the Natural World, comes with objects that the characters — who, in this play, embody the four natural elements — walk the listener through using in the context of a ritual, which sits at the center of the story. For $40 (plus shipping), listeners receive the physical box of objects, as well as a card showing how to access the audio online. The play was co-written by Turner and Wade and features voice acting by them both.
The play also features soup-to-nuts sound design by San Diego State graduate Andrew Gutierrez, who’d previously scored exclusively live, in-person shows. “Music and theater are kind of my two big passions, but they’ve always been pretty separate for me,” says Gutierrez, whose brother, a DJ, had casually taught him music production. Theater, though, is what became Gutierrez’s main focus, since he chose it as his undergraduate major and only took music-specific classes occasionally. When he finally combined the two crafts, for a play of Turner’s in the winter of 2020, he says, “it was honestly eye opening.”
Transitioning to designing an audio-only play tickled a part of Gutierrez’s brain he didn’t know could be tickled, since it honored his love of theater while allowing him to have more control over the final product, as he has when composing music.
“It’s hard for me to watch my live shows sometimes when someone else is doing the sound board,” Gutierrez says. “While I create the sounds, after a certain point, I’m just hands off.” Elements might arrive too early, too late, or too loudly. But with something like Homecoming, he says, “I get to place everything exactly as I want; there’s no middlemen. I feel it’s more true to my vision.” And this is good for listeners, too: At home, especially while wearing headphones, the experience is much closer to such a vision than it would be in a physical theater, where acoustics vary by distance. With audio, “everybody has the best seat in the house,” or so he says.
While Gutierrez came with the chops to tackle this kind of work (maybe even more so than he anticipated), working on Homecoming was a catalyst for pursuing audio more exclusively. He’s since produced reels for potential voiceover gigs, has been working on another audio play, this one more traditionally delivered as a podcast, and is even considering pursuing a master’s degree in sound design. “I’m definitely looking forward to exploring,” he says. “There’s so much more to do.”
Gutierrez is just one of several people whom Turnkey serves to support in this way. Not only has the company committed to delivering immersive, active audio stories, but it commissions new artists to write them. By hiring people who’ve never before written an audio play but may have dabbled in podcasting or written short stories, Turnkey is beginning to chip away at confining aspects of the theater world — namely, the whiteness and heteronormativity that continues to define parts of it.
“We prioritize hiring BIPOC, AAPI, LGBTQ folks,” says Turner, “and we focus on new plays, because there is a tendency for theaters and audiences to produce and attend the same playwrights, the same plays, and the same style.”
The goal, Turner says, is to build “a pool of emerging sound designers and playwrights,” and those two roles have so far been quite fluid, she notes. Turnkey’s most recent work, Passion: A Ketuvim Play, was written by Eliana Payne, another San Diego State graduate. “This is her first play ever — she was a performance major,” says Turner. (So was Gutierrez, interestingly.) And a forthcoming play, set for release in August, was written by Kay :De (“KD”), who not only designed the logo for Homecoming but who, Turner says, is also “a budding sound designer.”
There is, of course, a logistical benefit to such double dipping: It makes for a more manageable team size and perhaps a less expensive production flow. But it may also prove to nurture more skills than would ordinarily be possible, allowing folks who are new to the audio or theater scenes (or the audio-theater scene specifically) to try on multiple hats and discover if there’s something they’re particularly good at or interested in improving. And this could, hypothetically, better prepare underrepresented folks to compete down the line.
Turner, for one, is all about lowering barriers to theater from every angle. A version of Homecoming without the accompanying props is available for $10, supplemented instead with instructions for how to find comparable objects around one’s own home. What’s more, she says, with a Turnkey Theatre production, “it doesn’t close or become unavailable.”
And even though, unlike the flashy, exclusive-feeling original run of Hamilton, a Turnkey play will sit there, unchanging, waiting, it will always retain some level of newness. What you bring to it determines what it becomes. Perhaps this makes a podcast-like play, particularly one produced by Turnkey, even more like theater than the theater it sought to revive.