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June 11, 2019, 11:03 a.m.

Can Quake Media shake up the paid-podcast marketplace? (Or maybe SiriusXM?)

Plus: Editorial expectations for branded-content podcasts, the Obamas want to be in your AirPods, and the darkest poutine.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 213, published June 11, 2019.

Walls, walls, walls. It’s been a little over month since Luminary, the aspiring “Netflix for podcasts,” stumbled out into daylight, and it’ll be a little while longer before we can figure out if the deep-pocketed upstart will actually tell us anything about the viability of a subscription-based business model for podcast-style programming. (It’s also worth noting that Luminary may well end up telling us not much at all outside of its own story.)

That said, whatever Luminary becomes, it won’t serve as a “pure” test of the subscription model, given the relatively late-stage revelation that it was going to also distribute the rest of the open podcast ecosystem. The choice essentially rendered the whole thing into a sparklier version of something we’ve seen before — a luxuriously resourced Stitcher Premium. Plus, Luminary won’t be alone as a newcomer within this specific iteration of the paid podcasting experiment. Over in France, there’s a startup called Majelan that’s angling a similar structure, and over the past few months, I’ve heard mumbles from one or two non-Apple/Spotify podcast apps that are quietly contemplating the prospect of the whole “exclusive content tier” thing as well.

I remain deeply curious about the prospect of a strictly bounded, subscription-based, on-demand audio app for podcast-style programming. For that reason, I’ve been keeping a close eye on what’s been going on with The Athletic — FWIW, I like the product execution a lot, though the programming itself needs some polish — and I continue to nurture my tinfoil hat theories around the nature of Audible’s increasingly complex original content adventures. (Direct deals with authors? Theater stuff? Kate McKinnon? What is going on?)

Can you build a true paywalled platform for podcasts? I raise the question, of course, fully aware of the terminological contradiction. Podcasting the technology is, after all, structurally defined by its open and free nature, though podcasting the concept has evolved as it drifts further into mainstream culture and the entertainment-industrial complex.

As it turns out, we’re not too far away from another go at the question.

A new subscription podcast service looms. At some point this winter, we’ll see the launch of something called Quake Media, which describes itself as a “subscription podcast network” that’s focused on creating programming around “household names developing unique and exclusive content for their highly-engaged audiences.”

The company, it seems, is well aware of the nomenclatural complication. “We believe using the word ‘podcast’ is the easiest way to communicate to a broader audience what the content essentially is,” Michael Morrell, Quake Media’s president, tells me. “For most people, we think the term ‘podcast’ connotes ‘on-demand mobile-first audio,’ but if anyone would rather call content like ours something different, we certainly respect that.”

When we traded emails last week, Morrell outlined the details of the fully closed platform: When the service rolls out, it will cost $6.99 per month — a buck less than Luminary — and will only feature programming that’s exclusive to the platform. There will be no free tier whatsoever, and the team is poised to engage in the difficult work of marketing tunnel conversion via free trials, referral programs, stuff like that.

So what sort of exclusive shows can we expect from Quake Media? Morrell tells me that the focus will mostly be on talk and conversational-style programming built around “household names,” many of whom have never crossed into podcasting before, and the goal is to hit both audiences that have never really bought into podcasts before — but might be drawn into the ecosystem by the allure of said “household names” — as well as deep podcast listeners that are looking for more shiny stuff to add to their listening rotations.

To state the gobsmackingly obvious: This thing is going to live or die based on who, exactly, these crossover talents turn out to be, and whether sufficient power can be extracted from their exclusivity to the Quake Media platform. And here’s the catch with this story: I’m told that the company isn’t quite ready to disclose specific names just yet.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. There’s a “we have this shiny box, we’re gonna put really cool stuff in it, promise” quality to the company’s pitch in its current form. Which, you know, is the kind of story I’d typically punt down the line until I get actual names…if I wasn’t intrigued by some details around the ensemble that’s formed behind the operation.

Based in Tribeca, Quake Media was founded by Doug Rosenberg, a former political fundraiser said to have a remarkably deep Rolodex. (“His vast network of connections, particularly in politics and sports, is definitely one of our competitive advantages,” said Morrell.) Rosenberg’s previous work in media includes creating the Alfonso Aguilar Show, a nationally syndicated conservative political talk-radio show that was picked up by Univision in 2012, and more pertinent to our interests, launching three sports podcasts that have popped up and around the Sports section of the Apple Podcasts charts: Tobacco Road, Meat Locker, and The Mike & Merrill Show.

Rosenberg has been quietly piecing the company together for a while now, assembling a group of investors that includes WndrCo (cofounded by Jeffrey Katzenberg) and an advisory board that includes longtime CBS Radio executive Chris Oliviero, who recently left that network shortly after its merger with Entercom. (Entercom, of course, is additionally relevant in this newsletter as the major stakeholder in Cadence13.) Last year, the company brought on Morell, a media veteran who spent a decade producing ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption before working the last four years at Bleacher Report building its video and podcast teams.

Looking at the personnel spread, the focus on personality-driven talk and conversational programming, and the commitment to the paid subscription model, it occurs to me that the big idea governing Quake Media may be a gambit to explicitly adapt SiriusXM to the on-demand audio environment — before SiriusXM can do it themselves. The rooting in talk radio is further reflected in the four verticals that will make up the service’s launch offerings: Politics, Religion, Sports, and True Crime. (Morrell signaled that there is an expectation to add more verticals over time, though there’s no predefined timeline around those just yet.)

Again, I’m intrigued. And again, this thing is going to live or die on the strength of those names that’s going to be on the surface. But I also think another thing to watch, whenever Quake Media rolls out, is whether talk and conversational-style podcast programming is better served by a subscription platform or the open ecosystem.

Podcasting has in many ways already adapted talk-radio–style programming on its own terms: Think Bill Simmons, Joe Rogan, Joe Budden, Jemele Hill, the late Reggie Osse and the greater Loud Speakers Network universe — even Marc Maron. The advertising monetization model, as we currently know it, is best served by that type of content, because those podcasts publish more consistently, generate higher volumes of inventory, and more effectively tap into the strength of the host-read ad. Better still: It’s free for the consumer, which means that those podcasts have greater capacity to spread, be shared, and deliver cultural impact.

One of my (many, many) theories on the paid subscription model is that its core opportunity is as a way to help certain kinds of podcasts that haven’t been well served by the advertising business. Stuff like limited-run series, fiction podcasts, content that advertisers would be wary of buying into, and so on.

Then again, SiriusXM is a very successful company that built a subscription model and created efficiencies over a freely distributed system that was, in its own ways, already working. We’ll see. I’ll be keeping a close eye on Quake Media, and where they will take us.

Be sure to note: Apple’s podcast-related WWDC announcements last week didn’t stop at the desktop app’s spinoff and the upcoming enhanced machine learning-driven search engine. The platform is also adding new genres and subgenres to the way it categorizes podcasts. I discussed the move in a recent Insider, but non-paid subscribers can catch up through this 9to5Mac post.

Keep an eye out: WNYC’s Werk It team just rolled out two things worth checking out this morning. First, they announced the results of a pay study — I hear they got over 600 responses off the survey, but we’ll have to see the experience spread — and second, they’ve announced a new advisory group that’s meant to help shape conference programming. You can find the details on that group here.

The BBC scraps blanket free licenses [by Caroline Crampton]. The BBC has announced that it is scrapping universal free TV licenses for people over the age of 75, a move that signals a substantial shift in the way the corporation is managing its funding. The TV license, which currently costs a household £154.50 per year, is the major way in which the BBC receives its public funding (I explained the process in more detail here last year). The free licenses for the over-75s used to be paid for by the state, but in 2015 the Conservative government altered the arrangement so that, from 2020, the BBC would either have to find the money itself or choose to end the subsidy.

The new arrangement will still involve free licenses for some people — anyone who receives the pension tax credit (a state benefit for retired people on low incomes) will have their contribution covered by the BBC, at an estimated total cost of £250 million. That’ll cover about 900,000 households. It’s still a hefty sum for the BBC, though substantially less so than continuing with the full subsidy would have been.

This topic is something of a political hot potato in the U.K., with some arguing it was unfair for wealthy retirees to get a freebie while struggling young people had to pay, and others saying it’s only reasonable that the retired should get public media for free since they use it more. I’ll be looking at the numbers involved and what it might mean for BBC budgets in more detail in Thursday’s Insider.

#sponcon and chill. Did you know that Netflix has podcasts? Like, a whole bunch of them? And did you know that those podcasts, overt in advertising purpose as they are, are a little more inventive and interesting than one would otherwise expect?

Netflix’s growing portfolio of audio #sponcon was the subject of a Vulture piece I wrote last week, and one of the main ideas I was trying to work through was: What, exactly, do I want from a branded podcast?

It’s a question I was going to have to confront at some point or another, given that branded podcasts are unlikely to fizzle out anytime soon. If anything, the trendline seems headed in the other direction, between Pacific Content’s acquisition by Rogers Media last month and a data point in the recent IAB/PWC podcast revenue report that branded content had, between 2016 and 2018, grown from 1.5 percent to 10.1 percent of podcasting ad revenue. Furthermore, branded-content contracts continue to be a vital revenue pillar for many independent podcast studios, especially those unable to secure the backing of an investor or a corporate overlord right out of the gates.

For what it’s worth, I’m not bothered by this trend as a matter of, like, economic development. I might have been, a few years ago, when I held obvious and less-developed views on artistic integrity and all that bullshit. These days, I don’t see — or at least I fight hard against the impulse of seeing — the work of making branded content as any less honorable or whatever than any other kind of creative work. The realities of the media business are what they are, most of us do not have the luxury and/or the privilege of being able to only make work on our own terms. There will always be the things we need to do to be able to do what we want. (Robert Pattinson made a gazillion dollars off the Twilight movies. Now he gets to make wild Claire Denis movies about…baby-making in space, I think?) Choices and compromise; that’s just adulthood.

But of course just because branded content is a fact of life doesn’t mean I’m not going to demand more from it, or want something genuinely interesting from the experience. If late-stage capitalism is going to consume everything around me, I might as well ask for a good time.

Career spotlight [by Caroline Crampton]. One thing I find endlessly fascinating about the podcast industry today is digging into how we all ended up here — there are as many routes to the audio world as there are people in it. With that in mind, I was delighted to trade emails with Felix Trench, a British actor and writer who is known for his work on the comic fiction podcast Wooden Overcoats. Felix shared some details about his acting training, the international fiction podcast community, and the origins of his comedy.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Felix Trench: I’m an actor. I work for stage, screen, and audio, mostly in comedy, and over the past few years, podcasting has massively increased the percentage of my work that has microphones. I also write. I play one of the leads in a podcast sitcom called Wooden Overcoats. It’s about rival funeral directors. Just this weekend we were performing an extended version of the first episode at the Underbelly Festival in London. We’re doing it again at the Latitude Festival as well.

I launched Quid Pro Euro on 9 May (to coincide with Europe Day), a short-form monthly fiction podcast. I write and narrate it, and Zachary Fortais-Gomm produces it. The show is presented as a series of documentaries about the European Union made in 1995, except that this EU is one drawn from an absurdist universe. It plays with bureaucracy and the ’90s and what it means to be European. It’s very silly. I grew up in Brussels, so ultimately it’s about that.

Outside of podcasting, I spend a lot of time thinking about my job, about why people work in the entertainment industry and how to keep doing so in a way that is both enjoyable to me and useful to everyone else, as well as reading and learning as much as I can to try to get a handle on the different theories of acting (and hopefully get better at it). At the minute, I’m reading Michael Chekhov, Gaulier, and the UCB Comedy manual.

Hot Pod: What has your career been like?

Trench: I left drama school in 2010 where they taught me how to hold a sword, how to eat a scone, and how to dance the pavane. My current professional count is Scones 0, Pavanes 0, Swords 3. I’m hoping to balance that scoresheet one day. There was also a lot of radio drama which I’ve drawn on loads in recent years.

My very first job was playing a French student for ten seconds of film time who had no lines but did have a scarf (so we knew he was French) in a video advertising London’s bid to host the 2017 Athletics World Championships. London won the bid. Since then, there have been a couple of adverts, a couple of soaps, and a fair amount of theatre.

In 2012, I joined the running game/app Zombies, Run! as a regular cast member, and every six months or so I get to go back and play in that world. That team anticipated the move toward audio storytelling before the big podcast boom in an incredible way.

I joined a co-operative agency for a few years, which meant that once a week I was an agent to other actors. That’s where I learned just how complicated this industry is and why it’s so difficult for any one person to be noticed. Around the same time, I attended a playwriting course at the Royal Court Theatre, where I met my good friend, the actor and comedian Tom Crowley. We bonded over finding ourselves in pretty much the same place in our careers. The two of us came up with a plan to create a sitcom and release it as a podcast without going via any gatekeepers (I’d been knocking on the BBC’s door with pitches for a while). We enlisted my then flatmate, the incredibly talented playwright David K. Barnes, as the head writer of our show, and from there the team grew and grew, as has the show. I sometimes compare our download figures with the bums-on-seats I was trying to get into the theatre and it’s just staggering. We’re at multiple Wembleys.

Since then, Overcoats has allowed me to work on a number of other podcast comedies and podcast dramas, and most importantly to meet the people who make them. That is one of the greatest joys of my life. I was in L.A. in February where the podcast drama community is so engaged and warm and enthusiastic and generous. And sometimes fiction podcasters from other countries come to London and get in touch, people from as far away as Norway or New York, so we go for a cup of tea or meet at the pub and trade stories. It’s all just great.

Hot Pod: What does “career” mean to you?

Trench: I once went to that Derren Brown show where he talks about life being a piece of music — i.e., you focus on the tune, not the final note. He got me up on stage, did some coin tricks with me, and stole my watch. It had a big impact. The industry people I admire most are the ones who never stopped learning, sharing what they learned, and creating. When I grow up, I want to be like them. I would like to reach a point where I can add to the conversation, not just parrot what I’ve heard, so I try to think critically about my own craft. I love what’s happening in the podcast space and hope I can continue to be a part of that in whatever shape it takes next. If not, I’m slowly learning to trust that there will be other doors.

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

Trench: I wanted to be a vet. My friends told me not to want to be a vet because I’d have to see the animals suffer and I accepted this logic without question. I still like animals.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to right now?

Trench: An unhealthy number of current affairs podcasts. But let’s talk about some great fiction podcasts instead? Victoriocity finished their second series this year; they have some of the best writing in the space and they brought me in to play an incredibly fun character. It’s a 19th-century comic detective series in a world where Queen Victoria is mechanized.

I love The Far Meridian, which is about a woman in a travelling lighthouse, Red Rhino, which is a superhero show with a parallel universes twist, The Orphans, which is a sprawling space opera about clones, The Amelia Project, which is a multi-country comedy about having people disappeared, Crowley Time and No Planet B which are excellent sketch comedy podcasts with different approaches, and I’m midway through Have You Heard George’s Podcast and The Fitzroy Diaries after their wins at the British and Australian Podcast Awards. Both brilliant.

Hot Pod: What’s the most unusual thing working in audio has led you to?

Trench: I once ran a workshop on public speaking for a group of economists. I should have realized it wasn’t quite the touchy-feely arts community I’m used to when the organizers introduced me with several slides about Margaret Thatcher. I got everyone to stretch and warm up their voices because that’s the only way I know to approach voice. I later got feedback that it was “not right and more like a yoga class.” I also told people to focus more on connecting to their breath and audience than on trying to speak in any one accent, despite (as I later learned) the organizers offering accent classes.

I have not been asked back.

You can find Felix on Twitter @felixtrench, the Wooden Overcoats podcast as @OvercoatsWooden, and Quid Pro Euro as @quidproeuro

Tracking

  • From Digiday: “The New York Times’ news podcast ‘The Daily’ is delving deeper into European politics with a weeklong series to help grow its global audience.”
  • From CNN: “Vox Media and employees reach deal on a union contract.”
  • From press release: “Audioboom Names Jessica Landman Sales Director, Ups Jordan Imsho To Junior Sales Director.” This comes as the U.K.-based podcast company, which is listed on Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange, reported an apparent 92 percent revenue increase, to $11.7 million, in the 13-month period ending December 2018.
  • From Billboard: “Spotify Announces Return of ‘Sound Up’ Podcast Accelerator for Women of Color.”
  • The graphic design for some of Elizabeth Warren’s signs looks mighty familiar…

(Compare.)

Release notes

  • The Obamas — they’re just like you! Well, in the sense that they make podcasts now. Except they’re making them for Spotify. On an exclusive multiyear deal. So maybe they’re not just like you. Most of you, anyway. Here’s my Vulture writeup on the matter.
  • In the wake of the Sony Music-Davidson-Mayer joint venture, it’s worth keeping an eye on what other music groups are up to. To that end, it seems like Atlantic Records has a new show floating around the podcast charts, The Making of the Shoreline Mafia, which is hosted by Loud Speakers Network vet Jonathan Mena. Not sure if this is directly connected to the podcast initiative the group announced last February, though.
  • From Variety: “Comedy Podcast Network Forever Dog Launches 11 New Shows.”
  • Gimlet Media has a new show out, a fiction podcast called The Two Princes, and unless I’m mistaken, I believe this is the second production (after Motherhood Sessions) they’ve rolled out since the company’s acquisition by Spotify closed.
  • The BBC’s collaboration with the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, Death in Ice Valley, is briefly returning for a live show later this month.
  • Was scrolling through a list of true crime podcasts the other day and spotted one called Dark Poutine, which is perhaps the most efficiently descriptive title I’ve ever seen.

Photo of a seismograph (used to measure earthquakes and such) by mathilio used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 11, 2019, 11:03 a.m.
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