The Writers Guild of America strike is officially underway. The last one, in 2007-08, ran for 100 days.
Given the increasing interaction between podcasting and greater Hollywood, some readers are wondering what impact, if any, the strike will have on the audio biz. The best place to start would be the question of whether striking WGA writers can work on fiction podcasts. (Some background: The guild had been doing some organizing work in the genre.)
The strike rules are tentative on the subject:
“The Rules apply to fiction podcasts covered by a WGA contract. Writers who wish to perform writing services for fiction podcasts are advised to consult with WGA staff to determine whether such writing is prohibited before performing, or contracting to perform, any writing services.”
When contacted, a WGAE spokesperson told me that writers can’t write fiction podcasts for any Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) signatory. That sounds sweeping, but note that the signatory category is still fairly young. “MBA-covered podcasts are virtually all self-produced fiction podcasts made for self-owned independent signatory productions companies, with the exception of a few one-offs done by Marvel,” the spokesperson said. “There are no major MBA signatory production companies that have scripted podcast divisions.”
As for WGAE podcast shops: “Spotify workers at WGAE shops the Ringer, Gimlet, and Parcast will not be going on strike,” the spokesperson said. “However, in the event of a strike, Guild members or non-Guild members are not allowed to write fiction podcasts for an MBA signatory company or they would face disciplinary action.” I’m told that only about a dozen writers total are impacted by this podcast-specific rule as of this writing.
That’s it on this for now. We’ll probably tackle more topics in this area in future newsletters. In the meantime, those interested in more generalized strike coverage should check out the site. You might also be interested in the short strike dispatches being published by the screenwriting podcast Scriptnotes, which is co-hosted by John August, who’s a member of the negotiation committee. And The Town, as usual for all your chaos Hollywood needs.
A bunch of messages came in; I’ve only got space and time to tackle a couple. Might get to the rest, piece by piece, as a recurring segment in issues to come. Feel free to keep those questions and recommendations coming in: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The latest cliché in podcasting circles is that the bubble has burst and (thankfully) “all the stupid money is gone.” This certainly feels true, but it begs the question: Is the money that’s left actually “smart”? —Jody
First of all, when I think about the concept of “smart money,” I tend to think of dollars spread across a few index funds, some bonds, possibly a certificate of deposit, stuff like that. Maybe a Powerball ticket as well, because you never know.
But I guess that’s not what we’re talking about here. If I’m not mistaken, the specific idea of all the dumb money in podcasting now having washed away can be attributed to one Eric Nuzum — co-founder of the studio Magnificent Noise, public-radio-to-podcast veteran, and quote machine — who first submitted the notion to the New York Times and then, later, to Vanity Fair. As far as I can tell from various conversations over the past few months, most podcast folks seem to nod along with the assessment, though as Jody brings up here, the question of what we’re left with is indeed still up in the air.
So I figured I’d reach out to Nuzum on that question. He wrote back, telling me that the “dumb money” quote was actually part of a larger idea that didn’t get fully delivered in the press mentions:
Basically I put money in three buckets. Dumb money, where people just throw cash at companies, talent, and projects with little plan or idea of how to make exceptional things; easy money, a lot of the VC investments or funding for companies that make work, might not — feels like a lot of other VC investments in other industries — funding smart people who might succeed or might fail and that’s part of the equation; and then smart money, or those who are incredibly diligent and disciplined in their investments, which feel right-sized and smart, and they invest in companies and creators that also are being diligent, purposeful, and disciplined.
The point I made was that the dumb money era is over, the easy money has really slowed down, and the smart money deals are less frequent but appear to still be possible.
Personally speaking, while all that resonates with me, I tend to view the picture in slightly different terms. What we’re left with right now is committed money more than anything else, which I have a lot of respect for, especially in this very moment when the American economic picture remains fairly fraught. And if I may just go off on a slight tangent for one second: I find it annoying that the turbulence in the podcast industry isn’t often discussed in relation to and within the larger context of the turbulence also currently being experienced by the broader media and entertainment industry. The podcast boom was frothy, yes, and the consequences of that froth is playing out, absolutely, but it’s not particularly unique in its contemporary state of dishevelment.
Anyway, does committed money necessarily equate to “smart money”? Not necessarily. But you can’t get smart if you don’t stay in the game.
Do you read Reddit podcast subs? I’m a fan of r/blogsnark’s, but I know there are a ton out there. —Lauren
You know, not a ton. I occasionally dip into the main r/podcast sub-Reddit to take in the vibes, and to the extent that I really dig deep into a specific podcast’s sub-Reddit, it’s mostly when I’m trying to forensically catch up on a string of drama related to that podcast community. Frankly, my Reddit time is mostly distributed around sports, news, and random things, like architecture porn and pictures of frozen dinners.
Maybe it’s the particular corners I frequent, but the podcast communities I engage with — by which I mean lurk around, because I rarely participate; hell, I barely reply to text messages — tend to exist as Discord channels. I’m in, like, maybe six or seven of those. That’s more my speed these days. Reddit makes me squint too hard.
When you go about putting together your list of shows to recommend, do you only go through shows from the U.S., U.K., or Canada, or do you consider international shows as well? —Salman
Sometimes! Though not as often as I would like. With the caveat that I can only truly grapple with English-language programs (plus whatever gets translated on Radio Atlas, which I dip into every once in a while), this is mostly an expression of the infrastructure that makes up my discovery/marketing/awareness circuits. As always, my inbox (email@example.com) is open, and if any creators or publishers outside the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia want to get something in front of me, please send a note.
Do you know of any good environmental/climate-change podcasts? —Chris
A broad category! Setting aside climate-change-focused guests that pop up on interview shows I like — if you haven’t already listened, the Kim Stanley Robinson appearance on The Ezra Klein Show might be up your alley — I usually keep tabs on Amy Westervelt’s Critical Frequency network, which continues to produce really interesting work on the subject matter.
Actually, let me just reach out to Amy and ask if she has any recommendations. She writes:
Oooh yes, I do!
Inherited: Gives me hope for the future — every episode is a different young person (from all over the world) telling a story about how climate has impacted them and also what they’re doing about it, which can run the gamut from just trying to process their feelings to leading successful movements.
Burn Wild: Grapples with the question of what constitutes “radical” on a burning planet via a fascinating story about “eco terrorists” who were on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for ages despite having committed zero acts of violence.
Floodlines: Which no one talks about as a climate podcast, but it absolutely is! Fascinating tale of what happened in New Orleans post-Katrina.
Threshold: They do a superb job of showing all sides of complex climate stories (plus excellent production quality and sound design).
Future Ecologies: Not explicitly a climate pod because they focus on ecology, but I love how their stories place humans back into the ecosystem, and they do a great job of sound design that makes the episodes really immersive.
So there ya go.
I can’t believe how many podcasts I listen to where the only advertising is for … drumroll please … other podcasts. Doesn’t seem like a picture of a sustainable economic model to me. Does money change hands when, say, an iHeart podcast advertises another iHeart podcast? Since you listen to 100x more than me, are you seeing this too and what do you think? —Doug
Yep, I’m seeing a lot of that too, and nope, it does not inspire confidence. That said, as you’re wading through the ad load, it’s useful to distinguish between two kinds of podcast ads for other podcasts: a “house ad” and an actual ad.
A “house ad” refers to a spot promoting a product, feature, or in this case, program that’s also created by the media company who made the thing you’re already consuming. So, per your example, if you hear an iHeart podcast advertise another iHeart podcast, that’s a house ad, and typically, money does not change hands for that, unless the right hand is giving a dollar to the left hand, which is just silly. Anyway, house ads are usually deployed when the ad inventory isn’t completely filled, the thinking being that you’re using that unfilled inventory to potentially drive more audience value elsewhere in your show portfolio.
If you hear an ad for a podcast that doesn’t share the same larger business infrastructure with the podcast you’re listening to, then that’s a normal ad, though that could either be the result of a cross-promotional agreement or actual money changing hands.
With that distinction out of the way, I totally get your point about the bigger picture. A podcast economy mostly consisting of podcasts that make money by advertising podcasts does feel like a house of cards. And while that may be the case for certain corners of the podcast ecosystem, the podcast economy as a whole does have enough major pillars and players who do exhibit robust advertising loads servicing a growing range of clients.
Anyway, speaking of ads, I have a whole other gripe about growing ad-load volumes and ad experiences that are veering perilously close to the broadcast-radio style, but I’ll leave that for another day.
News and Notes
➽ Here’s a reader rec that I’ve been really enjoying (thanks, Mer!): Mixtape Memoir, a feminist music-interview show hosted by Carmel Holt that hooks around the concept of personal soundtracks. It’s a bit of a tricky one to access, because the show is primarily distributed through Sonos Radio, though you can also listen on the web. Mixtape Memoir is produced under the label of Holt’s other project, the syndicated radio show SHEROES, which is conventionally distributed as a podcast by the fine folks at Talkhouse. That’s a fun one too.
➽ The Tribeca Festival announced its 2023 audio-storytelling lineup last week, which you can sort through here. Among them are new projects from Welcome to L.A.’s David Weinberg, Ronald Young Jr. (who popped up as one of our podcasters to watch this year), and the writer Glynnis MacNicol, who’s collaborating with Jo Piazza on a series about the Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder. There’s also a show all about bridges, which, damn, sounds exactly for me.
➽ Falling Tree, the stalwart U.K. independent audio-documentary studio led by Eleanor McDowall and Alan Hall, turns 25 this month. They’re such a gem, and if you’re interested in the narrative audio format at all, you might wanna spend some weekends plumbing through their archives.
➽ Looks like the Los Angeles Times is pulling the plug on its news podcast, The Times. But as host Gustavo Arellano notes in the farewell dispatch, the L.A. Times’ audio operations are still ongoing, and the Times feed may be used for other projects in the future.
➽ In contrast, New York Public Radio is pushing deeper into the genre with a project called NYC NOW, meant to be a hyperlocal audio news feed that updates multiple times in a day.
➽ Very sorry to hear that Vice’s Waypoint is ending due to the company’s … well, state of financial chaos. A truly influential video-game podcast.
➽ A little bit of Kitchen Sisters on Ada Louise Huxtable, the great architecture critic.
➽ NPR’s Code Switch dropped a great one last week: “The Fallout of a Callout,” which features the comedians Hari Kondabolu and Hank Azaria speaking to each other publicly for the first time since the former’s Let’s Talk About Apu came out.
➽ And here’s my updated list of the Best Podcasts of 2023 (So Far).
More on the 2023 writers' strike
- TV Productions Delayed by Writers’ Strike
- Preserving the Art of a Succession and ITYSL Writers’ Room
- Celebrities Are Standing With the WGA