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March 26, 2019, 11:16 a.m.

Spotify is still hungry for podcast companies, gobbling up Parcast

Plus: Gimlet pushes back on its aspirant union, Acast gets more continental, and Joe Rogan’s galaxy brain.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 201, published March 26, 2019.

Spotify to acquire Parcast, and a Gimlet union update. There are two Spotify stories worth noting:

(1) Spotify announced this morning that it’s moving to acquire Parcast, the Los Angeles-based company, founded in 2016 by Max Cutler, that trades in a genre-oriented, high-volume portfolio with broad titles like Serial Killers, Cults, and Unsolved Murders. (My dude Jonah Bromwich at The New York Times has described the company’s fare as “pulp nonfiction” whose “lurid storylines play out like snackable television,” which is a fair assessment, I think.) The terms of the deal were not disclosed, and it’s expected to close in the second quarter of this year. This will be Spotify’s third podcast acquisition, having picked up Gimlet and Anchor for a combined $340 million earlier this year, and it presumably eats into what Spotify has described as the $500 million budget it has set aside for acquisitions this year.

Parcast currently has 18 shows on the market, with apparent plans to roll out 20 more this year. The company currently has 20 employees, and its audience is said to be 75 percent female (which is consistent with more general findings about true crime). You should probably take note of this quote from Spotify chief content officer Dawn Ostroff, who joined the company last summer, in the associated press release: “The addition of Parcast to our growing roster of podcast content will advance our goal of becoming the world’s leading audio platform. Crime and mystery podcasts are a top genre for our users and Parcast has had significant success creating hit series while building a loyal and growing fan base. We’re excited to welcome the Parcast team to Spotify and we look forward to supercharging their growth.”

So between Anchor, Gimlet, and Parcast, you could say that Spotify now has a technology platform for third-party podcasts, a production company built on a prestigious brand, and a production company that works in sheer volume. Interesting.

One more thing to note: Parcast was previously associated with Endeavor Audio, the new audio division of the media conglomerate Endeavor. At Endeavor Audio’s launch announcement last September, the Parcast network was said to be delivering 9 million downloads a month. It’s unclear if that’s raw downloads or unique monthlies.

(2) So, as we reported in Thursday’s Insider, Gimlet Media’s management declined to formally recognize the union last Tuesday. The union’s organizing committee took to Twitter yesterday to ramp up public pressure, laying out the situation from their perspective: “Last week, Gimlet effectively declined voluntary recognition. Instead, Gimlet’s lawyer came back with a surprisingly aggressive counter-proposal. The company is trying to unilaterally cut 30 people from our proposed unit. Additionally, @Gimletmedia’s leadership is demanding a revote, but the 30 people who were cut would not be able to vote.”

You can see the full Twitter thread here.

I’ll be monitoring the situation. In the meantime, some questions to keep in mind: How will broader Spotify management approach the situation? How strong is the coalition that the organizing committee has built among the workers? Also: what’s the argumentation around the aforementioned 30 people?

All right, moving on for now.

Acast’s French expansion [by Caroline Crampton]. The Swedish podcast company, which launched back in April 2014, is officially pushing into France. CEO Ross Adams hinted at the move when I spoke to him back in December, around the time of their $35 million Series C funding round, and said expansion into non-English-language markets was a big part of the strategy for the next two years. Adams, who helped to launch Spotify in the U.K. back in 2008, has brought on another exec from the (also Swedish) music streaming giant to spearhead this expansion: Yann Thébault, former managing director of Continental Europe for Spotify, joins to lead operations there.

“Last year was a tipping point for podcast consumption,” Thébault told me. “Right now in France, there are about 4 million people listening on a monthly basis. It’s not a fully developed market yet, but it’s growing very quickly…there have been a lot of new show launches in the past year.” That data point, by the way, comes from Médiamétrie’s Écoute des Podcasts report from April 2018, which francophones should check out.

France has traditionally had a strong radio sector, which is very much reflected in the podcast output there. “About 85 percent of the market is dominated by [radio] replays, which means that about 15 percent is [podcast] native and growing quickly.” That’s the market segment Acast is banking on — they’re hoping that by entering early, they’ll be the monetization platform of choice once the space has expanded and matured. This approach has certainly worked for them in the U.K., a comparison that Thébault referenced in our discussion too: “I see the French market — I mean, in so far as we can compare market to market — as like the U.K. two years ago.”

One of the biggest trends in original French podcasting, he said, was feminism, and there are also several new and influential women-run podcast production houses in France. We profiled one of them, Louie Media, last summer, and they, along with House of Podcasts, were also recently written up by the Bello Collective. Beyond women and LGBTQ-centred shows like La Poudre, Thébault said that “food,” “crime,” and “social justice” were also content areas rapidly growing in popularity.

Acast France seems to be starting small. The branch just finalized the contract with their third employee, a director of sales, who starts work in April, and Thébault notes that he already has a director of content working on staff. They plan to increase their headcount more rapidly “once we secure our first publisher agreement to sell and monetize their content.” The goal for now, Thébault explained, is to get podcasts on their platform, both from established media houses and independent producers. The aim is to spot “tomorrow’s talents,” he said, with the hope of monetizing these smaller shows once they grow in the future.

Thebault says French advertisers are already fairly well informed as to the benefits of advertising on podcasts — the logic being they’re used to commercial internet radio stations and streaming platforms like Spotify and Deezer. (Whether you buy into this logic is your call.) “In France, the digital audio market represents around 12 million euros,” he said. “That’s not a huge market, but it’s growing very fast.” The strong representation of feminist and women-centric podcasts works well with commercial deals too, with luxury good, fashion, and beauty all interested in that segment of the podcast audience.

A small start for Thébault and Acast France, but they’re betting hard on seeing a similar podcast growth trajectory there as in the U.K. and elsewhere. It’s long been reported that Acast is looking at eventually going public on the Swedish stock market; going into new markets like France (and possibly Germany and Spain next, I’d imagine) is likely a move to lay down a substantial European division which could give them a growth narrative with some runway.

Platform neutral [by Caroline Crampton]. Well, that’s interesting: The BBC has pulled its podcasts from parts of the Google Podcasts ecosystem, meaning that the People’s Programming is no longer accessible via Google Assistant on Google smart speakers and devices. In a blog post published this morning, Kieran Clifton, the BBC’s director of distribution and business development, explained the move thusly:

Last year, Google launched its own podcast app for Android users — they’ve also said they will launch a browser version for computers soon. Google has since begun to direct people who search for a BBC podcast into its own podcast service, rather than BBC Sounds or other third party services, which reduces people’s choice — an approach that the BBC is not comfortable with and has consistently expressed strong concerns about. We asked them to exclude the BBC from this specific feature but they have refused.

This refers to the integration of the Google Podcasts app with Google search and the rest of the Google ecosystem. Since Google’s much-publicized re-entry into podcasting last year, it’s been the case that when you search for a show using Google, you get a “recent episodes” component to your search results with play buttons beside each one that uses the architecture of the Google Podcasts app. As Podnews noted in its early reporting on this story, the BBC is now using robots.txt on its podcast server to prevent Google indexing any episodes published after March 19 in this way. You could read this as a classic publisher-platform dispute: The BBC now considers Google a competing distributor, one that uses its search dominance to push users towards their own podcast product. (I mean, welcome to the internet, I guess?).

For background on this, we should look at the rules that govern how the BBC distributes its content. Clifton references the BBC’s Distribution Policy, which doesn’t address this topic directly but sets out the conditions under which the BBC allows its output to be made available on other companies’ platforms. The broad headings are: prominence, editorial control, branding/attribution, quality, data, free access, and value for money. This policy appears to agree with the BBC’s regulator, Ofcom, the body which scrutinises the BBC’s operations to make sure all is as it should be.

Given that the BBC is funded by the public through the license fee — read my explainer on how that works here — how the corporation creates and distributes content is constantly monitored to make sure that it’s providing value for money while being as accessible and representative a broadcasting service as possible. In light of this public remit, it’s a big deal for the organization to pull a substantial part of its audio output from a platform as huge and widely used as Google.

But just how big a deal is it, though? Smart speakers (and audio distributed via Google Podcasts) are a small segment of the audio market so far, but Google Podcasts is now preinstalled on many Android phones, giving the platform vast theoretical reach. Ofcom will no doubt be looking into this decision in detail, and for what it’s worth, its guidelines do allow for the BBC to stop working with a third-party platform in cases where there is “an objective justification” for doing so. “Objective justification,” of course, is where the rub lies.

Meanwhile, there’s another strand to this: the BBC Sounds strategy. As I’ve covered extensively over the past few months, the BBC’s bespoke audio app — their biggest product launch in a decade — has had a somewhat rocky start since its launch in autumn 2018, with mixed reviews and experiments with show exclusivity that proved unpopular with some listeners. But the BBC has consistently doubled down on the app’s benefits, putting out statements about how “the response to BBC Sounds has been overwhelmingly positive.” Essentially, the BBC seems to believe it’s worth more to try to move podcast listeners into its own app than to reach them on whatever platform they currently use. For what it’s worth, Chris Kimber, a BBC product manager working on BBC Sounds, tweeted that the removal of BBC shows from Google was “unrelated to any exclusivity trial,” which makes sense — this is a more fundamental issue of how the BBC interacts with third parties over its own app.

The part I think is particularly relevant to this matter with Google first emerged in an interview that BBC Sounds launch director Charlotte Lock gave about the negative audience reaction to the Fortunately… with Fi and Jane podcast going temporarily Sounds-exclusive back in January. Lock made the point that when listeners consume BBC audio content through the BBC Sounds app, rather than via RSS feed on a third-party platform, the BBC is able to capture more audience data. She spun this as a positive for listeners, because it enables the BBC to offer better “tailored recommendations,” although at the time I was a bit skeptical that “a corporation wants more data about you” was going to be a strong motivator for listeners to use the app.

This line of argument has now been applied to this Google dispute. The key section:

We also want to make our programmes and services as good as they can possibly be — this means us getting hold of meaningful audience data. This helps us do a number of things; make more types of programmes we know people like, make our services even more personalised and relevant to people using them, and equally importantly, identify gaps in our commissioning to ensure we’re making something for all audiences.

My reading of this situation is therefore as follows: The BBC wants Google to direct listeners straight to BBC Sounds (which has a web version which is accessible internationally; the app is U.K.-only), rather than prioritizing the fact that they can play the shows through Google search or on other Google platforms. Google, unsurprisingly, refused to make this substantial exception to its own business model. As a result, the BBC deployed robots.txt and is now presenting this move as a beneficial one for listeners, who will give the BBC more data by using Sounds instead, thus influencing the long-term direction of BBC audio content. Clifton’s blog even describes the BBC’s actions as having been taken “for the good of listeners.” “For the good of BBC Sounds, internally thought to be good for listeners” might be more accurate.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this reasoning quite stacks up. It’s logical enough for the BBC, which is desperate to make BBC Sounds work after all the resources and effort that’s been poured into it. But I think the benefits are more on its side than on listeners’, who now have fewer outlets where they can access BBC material. The BBC’s gamble is that listeners love their content enough to follow it to the Sounds app, but I’d guess that a reasonable proportion — especially those who do the bulk of their listening on a Google Home for accessibility reasons, say, or through Android Auto while driving — will just switch to other podcasts that are available on their platform of choice.

As a strategy, this would be fine if the BBC was a profit-making private company: You sacrifice some listeners in order to get greater value from the really loyal ones willing to use your app. But the BBC has this obligation to be as open and accessible as possible, and so far I’m not convinced that “we can do better recommendations if everyone uses BBC Sounds” trumps the necessity of distributing their audio as widely as possible — although ultimately that will be for Ofcom to adjudicate. It’s worth remembering, too, that BBC Sounds has been cited by BBC execs as a way of re-engaging younger audiences turning away from BBC radio in favor of other streaming platforms. I’ll await the regulator’s view on that with great interest too, especially since that the corporation’s failure to reach young people was a major part of Ofcom’s latest performance report for the BBC.

This wrangle between the BBC and Google is by no means over, though, and this could all still change. Clifton notes in his post that “we are in discussions with Google to try and resolve the situation and will continue to work with them to try and come to a solution that’s in the best interests of all listeners.” I can’t help feeling that this is just an early skirmish in the chess game: The BBC called a bluff and pulled their shows. Your move, Google.

On accessibility [by Caroline Crampton]. Podcasts and the question of accessibility is a vital, important topic. This recent article by the writer Robert W. Kingett — about how he experiences podcast websites via his screen reader and how poorly many are set up for visually impaired people — really grabbed my attention. I got in touch with Kingett to find out more about his thoughts on accessibility and the podcast industry, and what changes he believes need to be made to improve matters. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Hot Pod: What part do podcasts play in your life?

Robert W. Kingett: Podcasts play a huge part in my life now, much more than they did, say, three years ago. Even when I was legally blind (I’m now totally blind), I assumed that podcasts were just on-demand talk shows. I never even considered a podcast could be an audio drama, for example, or an audio-described public domain movie. Podcasts are a level playing field for me and so many other visually impaired people, especially audiobook listeners. There’s even a category of podcasts called spoken editions, where articles from publications like Playboy and Wired are read out loud, which is great, because I don’t have to navigate the website — I just press play. I’d even say I consume more podcasts now than TV and or movies because, well, it’s free entertainment and information. I’ve even started sharing podcasts with my sighted friends, who still don’t get it — like, there’s nothing to look at! Or, they assume, like I did, that all podcasts are talk shows. It’s a work in progress. Still, I’m starting from an equal place when I’m sharing podcasts. Nothing is tacked on as an accessibility tool for the blind later. My sighted friend doesn’t have to hear the special audio description, for example. We’re starting from the same place.

Hot Pod: What are the most common accessibility issues you find as you look for, subscribe to, and listen to shows?

Kingett: The most common accessibility problem I’ve ran into is the lack of accessible podcast apps and websites. It’s completely backwards. The blind and the visually impaired could have access to all this great free audio content and entertainment, but there’s only a handful — actually, less than that — accessible podcast players.

As much as people don’t like Apple, other companies should take accessibility cues from Apple. I get why many listeners hate the Apple application, but for us visually impaired people, it’s one of the few options we have. It works, and it works well. Plus, Apple Podcasts works with Apple TV, which is also accessible. Outside of Apple, though, your choices are extremely limited, especially if you’re on a budget and can’t afford to pay for a podcast application, for example. Android, luckily, has Google Podcasts. Spotify is accessible, mostly, but it’s not user-friendly for people who are seniors who want to know what’s this podcast audio fiction kids are talking about these days. Overcast is extremely accessible but doesn’t come on every device. That’s it. That’s all the free podcast apps we can use with screen readers. All the rest, especially RadioPublic, have extremely bad accessibility. I mean, buttons and links are not even labeled in their apps and that’s really, really, basic stuff.

Websites are a huge problem too. I hear so many advertisements for Squarespace and it saddens me, because Squarespace does not make it easy for people looking to create an accessible website at all. Yet that’s what many podcasters use, and it makes me want to pull my hair out. Squarespace doesn’t have the accessible content management system down at all, so when creators are creating their website and they are inserting a form, for example, creators don’t know that HTML code working behind the scenes isn’t accessible. That’s Squarespace’s fault, though. If you want your podcast website to be accessible, don’t use Squarespace. Period. Don’t embed the RadioPublic player. Period. Use WordPress.com if you want to make an accessible website for free. Don’t use Tumblr, either, whatever you do, because again, in order to make it accessible, you have to do extra things, and that’s something creators shouldn’t have to do.

Along the same lines, I find it’s extremely difficult to subscribe to podcasts. For example, The Bright Sessions has an inaccessible subscribe page. When navigating with a screen reader, it doesn’t say “subscribe with Apple”, or whatever choices. The links are not labeled. The images are not labeled. So I can’t tell visually impaired people “go subscribe with your app of choice here.”

Instead, I’d say use a service like PodLink. I don’t know if these pages look pretty, but they do the work for you. Plus, PodLink is working with me on accessibility consulting, so it will get better soon.

When I do muster up the strength to listen to a talk-show podcast — no offense, but I hate them. They don’t insert chapters into their three-hour long episodes. Apps are supporting chapters now, so I wish more creators took advantage of this.

Hot Pod: How can the podcast industry do better on accessibility?

Kingett: It’s so basic, but it’s the biggest problem. Make sure your websites are accessible to screen readers. Make it wicked easy to find your subscribe links. Provide clear show notes. Also, provide transcripts — not only do transcripts help people who are deaf enjoy your show, but it makes it really easy for reviewers to quote things you’ve said. Also, have accessible press kits. Accessible press pages. You will have blind journalists reviewing your shows someday. Make it as easy for them as possible to do so. Label your images when including them in your .zip file, for example. Be clear about what this high-resolution image is. Again, all of this is basic stuff, but the web and app accessibility is a rarity. Transcripts are getting better, but basic web and app accessibility isn’t catching on. I don’t know why.

Hot Pod: If you could alter how podcasting works, what would you change?

Kingett: Honestly, and maybe this is because I’m such a huge audiobook listener, but podcasts seem to be completely confused on how to market themselves to audiobook listeners. I don’t get it. They are billing themselves as different from audiobooks when, in reality, if they used more audiobook-friendly language, maybe people would try it more, especially older people. It’s free, but still, so many people would rather buy an audiobook because they tell me that a podcast is way too complicated for them to try. But podcast creators and otherwise seem to have no clue how to approach audiobook fans. That’s a huge untapped market.

And, in a way, they are right. This podcast link, for example, will only work in that podcast app, which makes sense to us, but an audiobook listener can download an audiobook on any device they want. Google Podcasts is doing something great with their website. Make it as easy as possible for cross-platform support and it will be easy to share.

Personally, I’d like the industry to take more written prose and turn it into audio. Modern Love [the podcast version of the New York Times column] is great! I wish more Modern Love–type podcasts existed, because, there are tons of people who can’t write scripts, but who can write killer prose.

I’d actually love it if people would sell their podcasts on audio CDs or as one huge audio file. I know this seems counter to what podcasts are, but people still listen to CDs in their DVD players. Have episodes as separate tracks with no advertising. It would be a really easy way to gift people a new kind of audiobook, for example. It may not sell rapidly, and I know it sounds like I’m trying to go backwards, but you could reach a new market that way, especially with commercials taken out. I’d like to see podcasters release seasons as audio CDs with special packaging, higher audio quality, and neat art! This way, I can gift my audiobook buddies something for Christmas!

You can support Robert W. Kingett’s writing on Patreon or visit his website.

Tracking

  • Shoutout to all the political and daily news podcast producers out there who worked overtime this weekend. Your contributions will be downloaded.
  • Stitcher announced its spring slate last week, which includes a new season of Headlong, LeVar Burton Reads, and Bad With Money, among others. A second season of the company’s podcast collaboration with Marvel, Wolverine: The Lost Trail, is also forthcoming. (First episode here.) Additionally, Stitcher is continuing its Stitcher Premium exclusives pipeline; one upcoming project is The Wokest, from comedian-writer-director Edgar Momplaisir. Full release here.
  • From Digiday, reporting on Advertising Week Europe: “Podcast, rather than voice opportunities, sparked the most interest from advertisers at the event…but podcast advertising is still a new enough medium to encourage advertiser investment without much proof of a return on investment.”
  • From the U.K.’s Press Gazette: “Regional publishers team up to develop local news podcasts backed by Google money.”
  • Over at the Inside Podcasting newsletter, Skye Pillsbury got her hands on a demographic breakdown of Luminary’s upcoming portfolio. On a related note: If you listen closely, you can start hearing Luminary host-read ads on certain podcasts. Keep an ear out.
  • Meanwhile, Slate has published a deep, deep dive into The Joe Rogan Experience, courtesy of Justin Peters: “Joe Rogan’s Galaxy Brain: How the former Fear Factor host’s podcast became an essential platform for ‘freethinkers’ who hate the left.”
  • On a related note, Westwood One has picked up The Jordan Peterson Podcast.
  • Sarah Larson’s latest at The New Yorker: “‘Case Closed,’ Reviewed: Do We Really Want a True-Crime Podcast with Answers?”

Illustration based on the gluttony portion of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things.” (Though some scholars think it was painted by a Bosch discipulo.)

POSTED     March 26, 2019, 11:16 a.m.
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