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Aug. 7, 2018, 10:26 a.m.

A big shakeup at Audible has left the audiobook giant’s podcast strategy unclear

Plus: Alex Jones gets deplatformed, a new alternative to Patreon for producers, and some contradictory data about how people use Alexa.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 172, published August 7, 2018.

Huge shakeups at Audible Originals. I can confirm that the Amazon-owned audiobook giant announced internally last Thursday that it was eliminating a considerable number of roles within its original programming unit. Sources within the company tell me that the role eliminations span a number of different teams within the unit, but most notably, they include nearly the entire group responsible for Audible’s shorter-form podcast-style programming, like the critically acclaimed West Cork, The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson, and Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel. That group was previously led by former NPR executive Eric Nuzum and his deputy, the public radio veteran Jesse Baker.

NPR’s Neda Ulaby first reported the development in a newscast on Friday evening. In the spot, Ulaby noted that about a dozen employees were affected and that the changes came “with no warning.”

Yesterday, Nuzum, who held the title of SVP of original content development, circulated an email announcing that he will be leaving the company in the next few weeks. He also noted that he plans to engage in some consulting work in the short-term, before diving into a new venture by the year’s end.

These developments come as Audible reshapes its original programming strategy. A spokesperson for the company tells me: “As you may know, we’ve been evolving our content strategy for Audible Originals (including our theater initiative, narrative storytelling ‘written to the form’ as well as short-form programming). A related restructure of our teams resulted in the elimination of several roles and the transfer of some positions to other parts of the business.”

I briefly wrote about this shift last month, using the release of the author Michael Lewis’ audiobook-only project, The Coming Storm, as the news hook. In the piece, I posited a link between the strategic changes and recent shake-ups at the company’s executive level:

Audible has long been a horizontal curiosity for the podcast industry, given its hiring of former NPR programming VP Eric Nuzum in mid-2015 and subsequent rollout ofthe Audible Originals and “Channels” strategy in mid-2016, which saw the company releasing products that some, like myself, perceived as comparable to and competitive with the kinds of products you’d get from the podcast ecosystem.

This signing of authors like Michael Lewis to audiobook-first deals appears to be a ramping up of an alternate original programming strategy, one that sees Audible leaning more heavily into the preexisting nature of its core relationships with the book publishing industry and the book-buying audience. It might also be a consequence of a reshuffle at the executive decision-making level: in late 2017, the Hollywood Reporter broke news that chief content officer Andrew Gaies and chief revenue officer Will Lopes unexpectedly stepped down resigned from their posts. (Later reporting noted that the resignations happened in the midst of a harassment probe.) The ripple effects of that sudden shift in leadership is probably only hitting us now, and in this form.

So that’s the context. Here’s what I don’t know:

  • What happens to all the podcast-style Audible Original programs that are still ongoing? What happens to their future seasons currently in production? And will those properties be given the opportunity to leave for other podcast companies — or will they be integrated into Audible’s new strategy in some form?
  • What happens to the dozen or so producers that were affected by the role eliminations?

And then, of course, there’s the question of what this means for Audible. I’ll leave this for next week.

The Alex Jones problem. The past few months have seen a flurry of activity on the subject of internet platforms and their responsibilities around hateful content, harmful material, and the limits of free speech. The issue largely focused on high-volume media-distribution platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but its scope actually extends much further than that: the e-commerce giant Amazon, as well, has faced scrutiny over some of the products it allows on its platform.

Last week, the ongoing saga reached podcasting shores, and it is there that the story proceeded to reverberate back outwards with significance.

Over the weekend, both Apple Podcasts and the Midroll-owned Stitcher removed podcasts by Infowars, the conspiracy theory-peddling media company led by Alex Jones, from their platforms. (If, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with Jones and Infowars, I highly recommend this profile by Charlie Warzel.)

Stitcher and Apple’s decisions came shortly after Spotify announced they were removing specific episodes from Alex Jones’ podcasts from its platform that were found to be in violation of its Hateful Content policy. At the time, the music streaming service was facing backlash for continuing to distribute the conspiracy theorist’s podcasts after Facebook and YouTube had temporarily suspended some of Jones’ programming for similar content policy violations. Spotify remained under pressure even after the selective removals, with critics continuing to raise questions on whether the platform had done nearly enough.

It’s worth noting that Stitcher was the first major podcast-distributing platform to delist Jones’ shows in their entirety. The company did so on Thursday evening, citing over Twitter that Jones had, on multiple occasions, violated its policies when he published episodes that “harassed or allowed harassment of private individuals and organizations, and that harassment has led listeners of the show to engage in similar harassment and other damaging activity.” Sources within the company told me last week that the decision to completely remove Jones’ programming, as opposed to just focusing on specific offending episodes (as in the case of Spotify), stemmed from its concluding judgment that the podcasts were likely to violate its policies on harassment and abuse in the future. Stitcher’s move attracted a fair bit of media attention, with writeups on Billboard, Engadget, BuzzFeed News, and TechCrunch.

Apple’s removal of Jones’ podcasts took place sometime during Sunday evening. I first noticed the delisting around 6:45 p.m. Pacific, and BuzzFeed News published the first official report on the matter shortly after. In the report, Apple similarly cited policy violations as the grounds for Jones’ removal. As a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News:

Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all of our users…podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming. We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.

Strangely, Apple’s decision only impacted five out of six Infowars podcasts. Real News With David Knight, Infowars’ daily news recap show, remains active on the platform. No explanation was given as to why. The BuzzFeed News report also highlighted the efforts by Sleeping Giants, a social media-based activism group, to lead pressure campaigns to get major internet platforms to cut ties with Jones.

Apple’s decision to delist Jones’ podcasts is noteworthy for its ripple effect within the podcast ecosystem. The Apple Podcasts platform does not actually host podcasts itself, functioning instead as an inventory to which you have to submit your RSS feeds to review for inclusion. Because of Apple Podcasts’ historical scale, infrastructure, and preexisting inventory map, a significant number of other podcast apps, including the public radio coalition-owned Pocket Casts, rely on Apple Podcasts’ inventory to determine their own offerings — sometimes to be efficient in populating their app, other times to lean on a larger authority for content policing. The removal is also noteworthy, obviously, for the fact that Apple Podcasts is believed to still be the most widely used podcast listening app in the market.

And it seems the ripple effect has extended outwards as well. Yesterday, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify all followed up by completely removing Alex Jones and Infowars programming from their platforms, all citing repeated violations around their hate speech and harassment policies.

As the bans from Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube trickled out on Monday, there emerged some debate about whether the bans were the result of separate processes that were all bound to end up at the same conclusion, or whether this was a situation where these gargantuan platforms were simply waiting for someone else to take the first step. Given the timeline and stutter-step nature of Monday’s Infowars bans, I can’t help but view this as the latter. When it comes to big internet platforms (or any huge organization with massive stakes, really), deeply complicated questions, and moral leadership, stories like these almost always crescendo to a point where everyone arrives at a holding pattern that waits for someone else to take the first step into the muck — and reveals the full ramifications of what happens on the other side.

In this case, the first one in was comparatively smaller Stitcher, and I can’t shake the feeling the company’s actions ended up attracting the right amount of attention and creating a permission structure that made it easier for the others to move in this direction. For what it’s worth, I hope they get the credit for it.

Show notes:

  • James Andrew Miller’s oral history podcast with Cadence13, Origins, is returning with three new seasons — or “chapters,” in its parlance — on the horizon: one on college football coach Nick Saban, one on the upcoming season of Saturday Night Live, and one on the legendary HBO show Sex and the City.
  • Tenderfoot’s Up and Vanished will kick off its second season on August 20. The podcast has now partnered with Cadence13 for distribution and monetization.
  • Radiotopia’s new Showcase series, called The Great God of Depression, dropped in full last Friday. Pagan Kennedy, a coproducer on the project, also published an related op-ed in The New York Times over the weekend.

Existentialism. Last Thursday, Edison Research SVP Tom Webster — one of the principal frontmen for the measurement firm’s Infinite Dial study, which gives the podcast industry its benchmark numbers — published a Medium post titled “Podcasting’s Next Frontier: A Manifesto For Growth.” It is an adaptation of Webster’s keynote from the recent Podcast Movement conference, and it presents a data-supported argument around what he views as the fundamental challenge for the podcast ecosystem…and what, broadly speaking, may be the way through it.

Webster’s argument contains numerous moving parts and side-theses (be sure to clock the bit about music podcasts), and at the risk of oversimplifying his perspective, here’s the main thrust of the piece as I understand it:

(1) Contrary to aspects of its public narrative, podcasting isn’t actually growing that fast. As Webster outlines: “Since we started tracking podcasting in 2006, weekly consumption has gone from essentially zero to 17% of Americans 12+. That’s 0–17, in 13 years, or less than two percentage points per year. Now, it’s grown a bit faster over the past 5 years, but can anyone look at this graph and call podcasting a fast-growing medium? It’s actually one of the slowest-growing media we’ve ever tracked in the Infinite Dial.”

(2) Raising the possibility (or, indeed, probability) that there will soon come a day when its annual reporting will show a flattening or decrease in podcast listening growth, Webster highlights the principal metric that should be the center of our attention: “17% of Americans say they listen to a podcast at least once a week. 64% of Americans say they know the term. That means that about three-quarters of the people who say they know the term ‘podcasting’ are not weekly listeners.” To Webster, this data point suggests that the fundamental problem is as follows: lots of people have heard about podcasting, but they don’t actually know what it is.

(3) That knowledge gap is preventing those potential new listeners from either trying out or buying into the medium. Part of this has to do with simple under-education about some core aspects of the ecosystem — podcasts are generally free, the means to consume them are already pre-baked into your phone, and so on — but a bigger part, Webster gestures, has to do with podcasting ecosystem’s lack of collective messaging that elevates its public identity beyond being a mere technological curiosity. Which is to say: there hasn’t been a push to help podcast programming make sense within the context of the everyday non-podcast consumers, in part by evoking facsimiles of what they already know or channeling the things they are already comfortable with.

For Webster, this conundrum is best expressed through the podcast ecosystem still not having what he calls “The Show”: the one program whose innate draw simplifies, supersedes, or even renders irrelevant the entire narrative around the distribution platform. He writes:

There were once was a time when plenty of people didn’t think they had a Netflix app, didn’t know they needed one, and weren’t sure how to watch it without getting discs emailed in those red envelopes. So what did Netflix do? They didn’t spend a bunch of money on a “Got Netflix?” campaign. They spent a lot of money on Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. What gets people to discover Netflix is curiosity, and what drives curiosity is the show. The killer show.

Technology and gaming enthusiasts can probably broadly equate this argument with the notion of “killer apps” that move new devices and consoles. Same goes as well, I think, with SiriusXM and Howard Stern.

I had originally planned to present a much bigger discussion around Webster’s post, more or less agreeing with the broad strokes of his argument while at the same time looking to do a couple of things: identifying its limits, interrogating its assumptions, expanding the scope of the conversation. Forgive me, but I’m afraid I have to postpone that to next week, both for the reasons of space and because I got caught up digging deep into the Audible and the Alex Jones stories.

In the meantime, I leaned on Tom for this week’s Career Spotlight:

Career Spotlight. Since we have a huge chunk of Tom Webster’s writing to go through, what’s a little more? Let’s go.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Tom Webster: I’m senior vice president of Edison Research, where I’ve been for over 14 years (wow). As one of the few Edisonians who doesn’t work in the main office (I travel a lot, and work from my home in downtown Boston), I’m a bit of a minister without portfolio, I suppose. Our digital audio practice is certainly part of my remit, but my main role is as the “chief explainer” of our research to the outside world. I present our data to clients, to agencies, and at conferences all over the world. Thought leadership is pretty much 100 percent of our marketing strategy, so I try to speak wherever and whenever I can. I’m super fortunate that my wife, Tamsen Webster, is a brilliant idea whisperer; she works with speakers, executives, and companies on finding the thread of their ideas and making them stronger — so I have a free at-home speaking coach ;).

As far as life plans are concerned, I enjoy being involved in consumer insights, and don’t think I’ll ever stray that far from being passionate about the voice of the customer. I’m currently working on my second book, and I think there will be some creative endeavors down the road (another podcast or two, for sure) that will keep me engaged. One of the things that I love about my role at Edison is that I get to touch a lot of different projects, especially on the “diagnosis” and design phases, which means I am constantly trying to solve a wide variety of problems in a wide variety of industries. But Podcasting has certainly been a passion of mine for nearly 15 years, and I really love where the space is right now, and its potential.

Hot Pod: What does your career arc thus far look like?

Webster: Bizarre, in some ways, in its relative stability. Of my 25-ish years of professional life, 20 have been with just two companies, which they tell me is fairly strange. My first real “I actually want to work here and don’t just need a job” job was with a market research company that served the radio industry, where I really cut my teeth (do people actually cut teeth?) as a media researcher. That was an invaluable experience for me — not only in terms of my craft, but also for what it taught me about how to treat and manage people. My bosses in that job, Frank Cody and Brian Stone, hired me for one role, which I sucked at. But their philosophy was to figure out what people actually were good at, then have them do those things—and they let me do that. I was a VP by age 29, and I owe that to Frank and Brian creating a role for me that played to my strengths (which I didn’t even know at the time) instead of berating me for my weaknesses. There are probably 100 things you can be good at in business, and I’m only really good at 4 of them. Frank and Brian built a role for me around those 4 things, and I’ve been in research ever since.

I left that job to co-found a startup in London which wound up burning out after a year and a half or so. When I returned to the states, I decided to go back to school full time, getting my MBA, to fill in some of the gaps I felt I had to at least be passable at if I were going to continue a career in marketing. I got a concentration in consumer insights in 2004, and then joined Edison shorty thereafter. I actually almost joined Edison in 1999 — the president and co-founder, Larry Rosin, was someone whom I’ve respected enormously throughout my career, and the chance to finally work with him and the incredible team he and Joe Lenski built was hard to pass up. As a unit, the Edison team is amazing at the 96 things I suck at, and they’ve both been incredible role models to me for doing things the right way. My wife started her own business two years ago, and more than once we have talked about a difficult business decision, and asked ourselves, “What would Larry do?” That’s always been the right answer.

Hot Pod: Throughout your life, what did a career mean to you?

Webster: I have an uncharacteristically short answer to this: it is very important to me to plant a flag for quality. Both of the two companies I mentioned spending 20 years with were prestige brands in their industries, and to me, a career is standing for something you believe in, being known for that thing, and for that thing to be of value. Edison certainly stands for a thing I believe in, and my career satisfaction stems directly from my modest role in telling that story to the world.

Hot Pod: When you first started out being a human, what did you think you wanted to do?

Webster: I grew up in a very small town in northern Maine, and really didn’t become a “human” in the grown-ass semi-aware sense until I finished college. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I am eternally grateful that my parents sacrificed so much to send me to Tufts, an experience that very nearly blew my mind in terms of the quantity and quality of ideas I was exposed to. After getting my B.A. in English lit, I was well and truly convinced that I wanted to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. I went to grad school at Penn State, taught rhetoric and composition to the first-year class (time to abolish “freshmen,” yeah?) and fancied myself an Academic. I fell out of love with the “publish or perish” mindset, however, and figured out pretty quickly that academia wasn’t really my speed. The powerful play goes on — I’ve just found a different way to contribute my verse.

Hot Pod: Could you walk me through a little more about how you see Edison’s role in the world — and, like, the way your job has impacted your relationship to the knowability of things?

Webster: Larry and I talk about this a lot — our unofficial motto is that we’d rather be last and right than first. Period. This doesn’t mean that we are needlessly slow, by the way — as a small company, we are pretty nimble. But it does mean that what drives Larry, what drives me, and what drives all of us at Edison is the creation of new information — to understand something a little better than we did the day before and to go to bed at night knowing we did it as well as it could be done. I’m often asked by journalists and analysts to forecast things — where will we be in the future? What happens next? I resist those inquiries. Edison’s role in the world — in podcasting, in media, in our election research — is to be the most reliable and credible reporter of what *is*, not what will be. In terms of epistemology (top marks for being my only interviewer to ask me that one), I’d describe myself as being from the school of Pyrrho — a true Skeptic. That’s not a cynic, nor a pessimist. Merely one who believes that nothing can be known — not even this. We can only get close. And my belief in Edison’s role in the world is simply that I know we take the greatest pains possible to get as close as we can.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to right now?

Webster: I’ll get in trouble with numerous clients for not mentioning their shows, so this is a bit of a minefield question. I listen to about 20 hours of podcasts a week. I’d say half are music podcasts, which we need more of! I eagerly download and listen multiple times a week to the Anjunadeep Edition, a deep/progressive house music podcast that helps me write. I am a huge sports (and NBA in particular) nut, so I listen to Jalen and Jacoby, The Dan Le Batard Show, pretty much everything The Ringer does, and some NBA specific podcasts like The Lowe Post and The Woj Pod. My news comes from Up First, Planet Money, and Marketplace. I’ve known Mark Ramsey and Jeff Schmidt for years and years, and the collaborations they have done on Psycho, The Exorcist, and now Jaws are what audio should aspire to, IMHO.

Ultimately, I love The Show. I don’t think podcasting has given us The Show yet. It’s gotten close. And it will.

Thanks, Tom.

Miscellaneous bites:

  • “The Information has learned that only about 2% of the people with devices that use Amazon’s Alexa intelligent assistant — mostly Amazon’s own Echo line of speakers — have made a purchase with their voices so far in 2018, according to two people briefed on the company’s internal figures.” (The Information) As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton pointed out over Twitter: “That’s despite survey data suggesting something more like 25%.”
  • Breaker, the Y Combinator-accelerated podcast app, rolled out a new feature yesterday called Upstream that aims to help publishers to create and manage a “premium content” structure without having to rely on a non-podcast specific membership platform like Patreon. (Breaker)
  • “Apple’s HomePod may have just doubled its share of the U.S. smart speaker market.” (Fast Company)
  • “‘The Conservative Movement…Has Become a Racket’: Steve Schmidt Is Starting a Pod Save America for Never Trumpers.” (Vanity Fair)
  • “Colleen Scriven’s ‘Lesser Gods’ Podcast in Development as HBO Comedy Series.” (Variety)
  • “The Podcast Bros Want to Optimize Your Life.” (The New York Times)
  • “Patreon creators scramble as payments are mistakenly flagged as fraud.” (The Verge)
POSTED     Aug. 7, 2018, 10:26 a.m.
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