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Coronavirus, Consolidation, and Collective Bargaining: The Year in Podcasting

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Any summation of the past year begins and ends with COVID, even if we’re just talking about podcasts. Given everything that’s happened, how can it not?

We had just a little over two months of expected life in 2020 before counties across the United States started implementing initial lockdown measures, drastically altering the shape of everyday activity. Movement was scaled down, businesses were shuttered, and a great cloud of uncertainty descended upon the populace as this massive and utterly terrifying thing unfolded all around us. At the end of March, back when most Americans still didn’t quite know what was to come, those running podcast businesses started to grapple with the potential ramifications over the long run. What was all this going to do to my livelihood? How bad was this going to get?

Somewhat bad, it turned out, but only for a while. At the beginning, podcast listening experienced a noticeable drop, as disappearing commutes scrubbed out one of the medium’s central consumption contexts. The economic uncertainty caused by nationwide closures resulted in revised and contracted spending budgets among advertisers, which put podcast companies in the position of bracing for fallout. Meanwhile, the work continued: publishers and production teams pushed to fundamentally restructure the way they did things. There was a widespread shift towards largely remote workflows: hosts migrated to their closets (here’s Ira Glass, suit sans socks), pillows were hoarded, and skeleton crews were preserved on-site. Historically-resisted compromises were made: sure, audio quality might suffer a bit, but whatever, there were more important considerations. At the time, it was unclear how long all of this would last. I vividly recall an executive telling me in late March: “Yeah, we’re all living out of our closets for a while, but I imagine we’ll be back in the studio within six months or so.” A voice in the back of my head continues to laugh bitterly to this day.

The hit didn’t end up lasting for very long. By the summer’s end, there were indications that medium-wide listening had stabilized, and we’re closing out the year with some fully expecting listening to surpass pre-2020 levels. Several factors possibly accounting for this recovery come to mind. Some of this can be attributed to fundamental changes in the way audiences integrate podcasts into their lives: less listening during morning commutes, more listening during afternoons and within expanded in-between moments as people figured out new ways to lay out their day, that kind of thing. I suspect there are some supply-side effects to be considered as well, as more pools of celebrity and talent, deprived from shooting television shows or performing on-stage, took to podcast feeds (among other publishing spaces) to preserve their relationship with their followings. It’s also worth acknowledging a darker truth: it’s simply the case that large swathes of the country continue to live out their days as if there wasn’t a pandemic, and for this portion of the American population, aspects of “normal” pre-pandemic daily life re-materialized — daily commute and gym runs included.

I’m reluctant to say we’re ending the year with the podcast business “back on track,” because that framing doesn’t feel exactly right. I suppose you could say the podcast business turned out to be resilient, though the reality is that it was insulated in much the same ways the professional class has been broadly insulated by the full economic effects of the pandemic. Yes, there are aspects of podcast production that rendered uniquely suited for this crisis environment — relatively lower costs, capacities towards remote production and distant connections, community-orientations, and so on — but there’s also something to be said about how podcasting, as both a production and consumption culture, remains embedded in the more fortunate end of the so-called “K-shaped” recovery.

Anyway, we’ve made it this far into the column without a single mention of Spotify, so let’s get to that. I reckon the Swedish audio streaming platform walked into 2020 with a different idea of how the year was supposed to play out. (You know, like the rest of us.) The company kicked off 2020 with a bang, announcing a blockbuster $250 million acquisition of The Ringer — a move that embodied its ambitions around sports, global reach, and studio-style talent management — that was probably meant to be the kick-off of a calendar-long stretch of back-to-back-to-back headlines. This was supposed to be the Year of Spotify, one where its many activities would be the oxygen pervading everything else in the ecosystem as others sought to jockey for the same spotlight. But the shock of the pandemic scattered its narrative, and while the company did proceed with a succession of other major steps — whether it’s the exclusive Joe Rogan dealthe roll-out of the Michelle Obama podcast, the torrent of deals with Kim Kardashian and Warner Bros and DC and so on, plus yet another major acquisition in the form of Megaphone, all of which are exceedingly consequential moves — it remains the case that the company wasn’t able to maintain full command of its story, in part due to the overwhelming nature of the pandemic and in part due to the uncertainties that the pandemic specifically brought to Spotify, which had to balance its podcast-centric optimism with mitigating the mixed advertising picture catalyzed by the pandemic.

Spotify’s complications proved to be an opening for others. If 2019 was the year Spotify fundamentally reframed the podcast ecosystem, 2020 was the year several of its competitors, particularly those capable of matching in scale, doubled their efforts to meet the Swedish platform at the table. iHeartMedia continued its loud and messy push forward, doling out a seemingly endless scroll of new talent signings and show deals, leveraging its galaxy of radio-derived relationships to fuel its leap into modernity, and generally working hard to put a positive spin to its corporate narrative as it tries to draw attention away from the deep layoffs and cuts that’s happening on the broadcast radio level. SiriusXM, another old world radio giant, also elbowed its way into the scene, paying $320 million to buy podcast industry stalwart Stitcher in its bid for relevance on the new frontier. Meanwhile, Amazon, long in an on-again off-again relationship with podcasts, now says it wants in again. The company’s actual intended path forward remains unclear, though, as the Bezosian tech giant seems to be letting its two relevant divisions, Audible and Amazon Music, amble forward in their own conflicting ways, even as a pricey Wondery acquisition is thought to be in its last mile.

You would be correct in reading these machinations on the Big Podcasting level as an expression of further industry consolidation. Consolidation is largely about control over the facilitation of power and gain, and should each of these players realize their intended positions in the podcast ecosystem, we’re talking about a situation in which the vast majority of activity and revenue could ultimately run through at least one of these corporations. There’s also a possible causal picture to be painted here, with the effects of the pandemic directly contributing to the severity of these consolidatory outcomes. I’m partial to this reading, if not directly (“the pandemic is seriously hurting my bottom line, time to work with or sell to Corporate Player X”), then indirectly (“I’m anxious about the pandemic’s uncertainties, time to work with or sell to Corporate Player X”).

Quick sidebar. While I fully expected more acquisitions this year, even without the pandemic, I didn’t expect the New York Times to turn out to be such an active buyer in the audio market. Working from no particular position of need, the Times picked up two audio companies this year: Audm, a service that adapts longform features into audio experiences, and more outrageously, Serial Productions. In hindsight, the Times was perhaps the most appropriate home for Snyder, Koenig, & Co., being a unique sort of major media player that’s able to give the team the arrangement, prestige, and money (of course) they deserve given their stature in the ecosystem. Serial Productions going to Spotify or iHeartMedia would’ve just been weird, and also, sad in a soul-sucking sort of way.

Anyway, as Big Podcasting continues to reshape itself, we also started to see something over the past year that could serve as its proper counterbalance: the beginnings of organized audio labor. While unions have long been a factor in public radio workforces (and Hollywood), 2020 saw a real unionizing push among audio workers in digital media firms to get them recognized as creative labor worthy of first-class union identification. With guidance from WGA East, this push has become increasingly prominent, with the organizing coalition across three Spotify-owned audio divisions driving a great deal of the current attention. Parallel to this labor push is a crucial conversation that popped up over the summer about intellectual property ownership and the question of just how much creators should own in this new podcast economy. Diversity and the prospects for creators of colors were central dimensions to this discourse, its prominence inspired in part by the broader movement for racial justice that was sparked over the summer, as was the many ways in which the pandemic highlighted the precarities of being a worker — not just a creative worker, but a worker, period — in an American labor system that doesn’t take very good care of its people.

The past twelve months have been busy as all hell, perhaps somewhat improbably, given the calamity that we’re only beginning to crawl out from under. The past 1500 words only cover a select few themes from a year that had so many: we could go on to go back over the increasingly tight relationship between Hollywood and podcasting, Apple’s intriguing new place in the universe (and Steve Wilson’s departure), the rise of right-wing podcasting and what it says about the podcast-broadcast relationship. But hey, we only have so much space, and you should feel free to hit the archives.

One last thing I do want to leave you with, though, is something that’s both a cliché and still totally true. There have been several instances over the past two years or so when a specific event made me say out loud, “This marks the end of an era.” The fact I keep feeling compelled to say that with each new event suggests I’ve been incorrect at every turn on that front, and to this day, I’m still not quite sure which event in particular rises up to being that marker. But whichever event turns out to be the actual peg in hindsight, this past year in its totality — between the coronavirus and the consolidation and the shifting relationship between capital and creative worker — really felt like a genuine turning of the page. Seriously, I mean it this time.

The New Independence

By Caroline Crampton

This year has done strange things to my memory. I can recall certain incidents with complete clarity — such as the face-to-face conversation I had with someone in early March about whether they should still fly overseas that weekend to attend a journalism conference, yikes — and yet I also struggle to remember what I wrote about for this very newsletter this time last week. All of which is to say, this season of year-end retrospectives has seemed like harder work than usual, because all the listening and writing that I did even a few weeks ago feels like it was work done by somebody else.

In another sense, though, this feeling of separation has provided a usefully dispassionate lens through which to view my own year covering podcasts. To this end, I’ve spent the last week reading back through my own archive on Hot Pod, noting the themes that preoccupied me at different moments. It’s been an instructive exercise, allowing me to come upon what I think is my main reflection on this year, which is that I think that independence is becoming attractive again, even for podcasts with a substantial audience and value to a network or platform,

To explain what I mean by that, I want to start by looking back at a specific phrase I wrote in the 2020 preview that we published at the top of the year: “The independent podcaster will likely face turbulent times ahead.” Many of the predictions we made in that column didn’t age especially well, given the coronavirus — in particular, I’m thinking about the one I made about how physical spaces such as studios or co-working facilities were going to be great extra revenue streams — but I stand by that thought about the independent podcaster. Indeed, all the consolidation and acquisition we saw over the past twelve months has yielded an especially anxious and uncertain time for many indies, especially those reliant for monetisation on a company, network, or station that have changed hands or direction over the past year.

That said, some of the responses to these turbulent times have surprised me a little. While podcasting is moving towards the uncharted waters of a new era in many ways, there is one aspect that feels like a return to the past: the fact that some medium-to-large shows have actively chosen independence again over network pick up or platform affiliation. In the immediate post-Serial years, there was something of a sense that what success looks like for an acclaimed show was to find a long-term home or backer for it. A podcast network, perhaps, or a public radio station that would take the day-to-day work of monetisation and mitigating risk off the creator’s plate in exchange for a cut of revenue and/or intellectual property.

Nowadays, it feels to me like that aspiration is nowhere near as linear. Plenty of shows still seek and benefit from a corporate partner, which is fine and great. It just no longer feels like that’s the only endgame on the cards. That’s because it’s become increasingly clear that such partnerships come with big downsides as they do with big benefits. There is greater transparency around the trade-offs now — which is a good thing, in my opinion. Let’s not be romanticising any of the outcomes here.

For all the help with ad sales, a network partner can also suddenly just pivot away from content, as Panoply (nowadays known as Spotify’s Megaphone) did. Or they might suddenly downsize their podcast slate, as KCRW did this summer (leaving shows like Here Be Monsters to walk the world solo once again). The flare up earlier this year over intellectual property ownership feeds into this too. It feels as if there’s a much greater recognition now about the costs as well as the benefits of getting involved with a big publisher.

Back in the 2014-2015 stretch, there was a small flurry of collectives and indie networks appearing that brought independent shows together around a common purpose and shared resources: The Heard, APM’s Infinite Guest, Radiotopia, and so on. Some of those have ceased to exist since then, while others have taken a reputational hit this year, but more recently, other examples have sprouted up and begun to flourish: Multitude in NYC, Hub & Spoke in Boston, The Big Light in Glasgow. All of these entities are bets on collaborative independence, and the bet seems to be working out so far.

There were a few other data points from the past year that got me thinking about this. There’s Helen Zaltzman’s departure from Radiotopia in favour of a new Patreon-based model, rather than seeking a post-PRX partnership with another podcast publisher. There’s Jeff Entman’s aforementioned return to a community radio-esque model after his arrangement with KCRW dissolved. There’s the fact that this year Rose Eveleth has expanded her own critically acclaimed indie pod, Flash Forward, into a network with the addition of two new shows on related topics. And then there’s Hollywood Handbook, the long-running Earwolf show that’s similarly choosing Patreon-based independence built off the strength of their substantial archive, seemingly in the wake of SiriusXM acquiring Stitcher.

At a time when there’s more money than ever washing around in podcasting, an outside observer might assume that chasing the money is the only game in town. But as it’s always been the case, and as it’s increasingly internalized, that money comes with strings attached. It could be in the form of download targets, or creative restrictions, or simply limits to the true upside. There’s money and interest going into developing better tech solutions for monetising independents as well, whether that’s via Acast’s recent partnership with Patreon or Substack’s podcast hosting beta.

Going — or staying — independent isn’t an easy choice, and it may well be that in the future some or all of the examples that I’ve mentioned end up moving in-house somewhere, taking investment, or in some other way altering their models. I’m going to be taking a sabbatical from writing in Hot Pod from the start of 2021 while I work on other writing projects, and I’m very interested to see how this all appears to me once I’m no longer scrutinising every development so closely every week. But for now, at the end of 2020, I’m looking back at this year and what stands out to me are the times that I saw creators who could have chosen a path that would have taken them inside the companies now central to podcasting, but didn’t.

In tomorrow’s Servant of Pod Morra Aarons-Mele joins the show this week talking about The Anxious Achiever, the interview podcast she makes through the Harvard Business Review.

There’s been a lot of good discourse of late about the modern nature of work and… well, how it sucks, basically, even if you genuinely love what you’re doing. I’ve long found entrepreneurship culture to be odious, painfully rich with business bro sensibilities that are intensely annoying in their dehumanization. But it’s only been in recent months that I’ve started tapping into lines of thought that position the alienating nature of modern work within a reality of American policy that doesn’t quite facilitate ways of being where you could properly be a human being separate from the work that you do. And that’s a revelation that makes me hate business bros infinitely more.

Anyway, it is within this context that I enjoy Aarons-Mele’s The Anxious Achiever a whole lot, chiefly for the way it opens conversations about business culture should simply be more accommodating of mental health needs in general.

You can find Servant of Pod on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or the great assortment of third-party podcast apps that are hooked up to the open publishing ecosystem. Desktop listening is also recommended. Share, leave a review, so on.Speaking of Servant of Pod We’re still releasing new episodes every Wednesday through the end of the year, so do keep an eye on the feed.

Also, I’d just like to say: I’m really proud of this show! Big shout-out to my collaborators at Rococo Punch — extremely chill and talented people, all — for working with me on this project, which features what I sincerely believe to be some of the best work I’ve ever done. If you tried it out yet, please consider a listenOh, and my full picks for the Best Podcast of 2020 is out now. Find it on Vulture.

Platforms and the Shape of Programming

By Cherie Hu

It’s fitting for this year-end column that one of the very last events I attended in person before everything locked down was the Hot Pod Summit, which took place in early March. Packed in the main hall of a Brooklyn hostel, around two hundred people and myself — politely asking each other whether we wanted to shake hands or bump elbows instead — pondered how podcasting, a historically decentralized ecosystem, should be dealing with its own evolution, and sudden cash infusion, in real time.

The day opened with panels about Spotify and Sony Music Entertainment — two companies that are not only aggressive investors in podcasts, but also happened to have built their reputation and bottom line in the music industry first. I co-moderated a panel about Sony’s emerging podcast strategy, and on stage, I asked the company’s VP of Podcast Marketing about whether Sony’s podcast ambitions were inspired, at least in some way, by parallel moves from Spotify.

“The idea that the same players starting to coalesce in podcasting are also some of the biggest players on the music side definitely informed our decision to start a podcast division,” she said. “We know those players and how to work with them, and that’s a strength we can bring to the table.”

As I argued shortly thereafter, this sounded to me like a diplomatic way of saying that Sony Music’s foray into podcasting was a direct, competitive response to Spotify. Looking back, that conversation helped frame my understanding of how the rest of 2020 played out. In my mind, the main story about music and podcasts over the past year isn’t just about the content itself, but rather, about the increasingly tight interplay between content technology, and how platforms are working to set the content agenda for the rest of the podcast industry — just as they have with music for years.

Let’s look at Spotify’s UX as a prime example. We can see that the company is intentionally layering podcasts on top of music to create new hybrid, personalized listening and recommendation experiences altogether, in the hopes of competing with terrestrial radio while keeping subscribers hooked on the service. There are new playlist brands like Daily WellnessDaily DriveDaily Sports and The Get Up, which combine personalized music with a rotation of curated podcast excerpts that align with a particular theme (e.g. meditation, sports, current events). In turn, as I covered for Hot Pod earlier this year, these hybrid music/podcast playlists have encouraged the creation of “microcasts” — or shorter podcast episodes that are more digestible, fit better in the context of a crowded playlist and allow listeners to “sample” a given episode before investing more time into the show as a whole, the same way a music fan might listen to a single before diving into a whole album.

Most recently, Spotify launched a new native format in October 2020 that allows podcasters to legally add full music tracks to their shows in a way that pays out royalties to music rights holders, thanks to a direct integration with Anchor. This initially seemed like a positive development in a year where there’s been relatively little progress in streamlining the music licensing process for podcasts, and where bootleg music shows continue to pop up on streaming services like clockwork.

But it’s far from perfect. Furthermore, this all actually illustrates the nature of Spotify’s influence on the podcast industry as a whole, because it reinforces the closed ecosystem that the company is building over time (shows made on Anchor with full music tracks can be uploaded only to Spotify). Today, thanks to nearly $1 billion worth of acquisitions to date, Spotify owns a direct stake in almost every part of the value chain in the podcast industry, from content (Gimlet, The Ringer, Parcast) to distribution (Anchor) and monetization (Megaphone).

This has apparently scared some other tech corporations like Apple and Amazon, which are seemingly racing to catch up and get their respective podcast strategies together. With a questionable rollout, Amazon Music and Audible added podcasts to their services in September, and now have exclusive content deals with celebs like DJ Khaled and Common, respectively. Again, I think the biggest trend to follow around Amazon’s podcasts in 2021 will be not just around content, but more around how Amazon incorporates podcasts into its vast technological ecosystem, especially with smart speakers. The lines between a “podcast strategy” and a “voice strategy” will likely continue to blur in the coming year.

Meanwhile, traditional content owners and partners are closely following these music services’ moves, recognizing the potential consumption opportunity and launching a diverse slate of music podcast shows. From record labels, Sony Music is currently working on over 100 original podcast programs like My 90s Playlist, while Universal Music Group and Wondery launched their first joint podcast, Jacked: Rise of the New Jack Sound, in October. Several terrestrial radio stations have also come forth with new music-related podcast programming, such as iHeartRadio’s Speed of Sound and NPR’s Louder Than A Riot. Elsewhere, artists like Sylvan Esso and Pharrell Williams have launched their own independent podcast projects to promote their brands and/or back catalogs, while Song Exploder’s adaptation deal with Netflix could pave the way for more multimedia adaptations of music podcasts in the future.

What does this all mean for the future of podcasts specifically and audio generally? Unlike what some others have argued, I don’t think podcasts will threaten the growth of the music industry. My earlier discussion above suggests that Spotify envisions a future where music and podcasts coexist, and lead themselves to new, dynamic forms of cultural discovery and engagement. That said, the music industry already seems to be an afterthought in Spotify’s wider business-development priorities. In a recent interview with Recode, Gimlet’s head of content Lydia Polgreen explicitly said that Spotify’s goal is “to get people into the habit of listening to content on Spotify that’s not music.

As audio streaming subscription revenue continues to grow around the world, podcasts will simply become one piece in the wider chess game of inter-platform competition for user acquisition and retention. In this landscape, we can expect podcast producers to encounter many of the same problems with streaming services that music artists have faced before. For instance, there’s a tension between Spotify’s rather old-school model of inking multimillion-dollar content deals with celebrities, and the company’s ruthless pursuit of subscriber growth and algorithmic personalization for the individual listener. In the latter scenario, the platform not only sets the context, but is also first in line for listener allegiance. As Liz Pelly recently wrote for The Baffler, “playlists are designed to create and condition dedicated fans of Spotify products, not artists or podcasters.” Joe Budden had a similar sentiment when he announced his podcast would no longer be a Spotify exclusive: “Spotify never cared about this podcast individually … Spotify only cared about our contribution to the platform.”

Last but not least, there’s the issue of rights and control. When the hosts of BuzzFeed’s Another Round and Gimlet’s The Nod (the latter of which has recently been discontinued) revealed in June that they owned none of the shows they led, I couldn’t help but think that those deals felt similarly skewed and exploitative to traditional major-label deals with musicians.

The big question on many people’s minds seems to be: Can a publicly-traded company like Spotify really take a traditional Hollywood approach to original podcast development, and spend $1 billion on creating a closed, fully controlled and verticalized podcast distribution ecosystem, in the same breath that it purports to be empowering the next generation of independent creators?

Coronavirus, Consolidation, and the Year in Podcasting