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Feb. 18, 2020, 12:40 p.m.

I’d like to thank my family, my agent, my manager, and of course the Podcast Academy

What does “legitimacy” mean in an open industry? Plus: Is there really still a difference between podcasting and radio? A London station is trying to find out.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 246, dated February 18, 2020.

The Podcast Academy. Last Friday, a group of podcast publishers and related operatives announced the formation of something called The Podcast Academy — not to be mistaken with what appears to be a semi-amateur Australian resource for podcasters of the same name — which they described as a nonprofit organization dedicated to “elevating awareness and excitement for podcasts as a major media category and advancing knowledge and relationships in and around the business.”

Its activities will involve things like holding webinars, organizing networking events, and publishing white papers, but its flagship endeavor seems to be an awards program called called the Golden Mics. (Between “Golden Mic” and the use of the word “academy,” the whole nomenclature strikes me as a little derivative and cringe-worthy, which perhaps doesn’t bode well for the endgame effort of “elevating excitement.” Then again, “Hot Pod.”)

The newly formed body, which will be driven by membership, pitches itself as for both industry professionals and independent podcasters, however you define those terms. Its founding members include executives from Wondery, Stitcher, NPR, PRX, Tenderfoot TV, Spotify, and Sony Music, along with Criminal’s Lauren Spohrer, Spoke Media’s Alia Tavakolian, UTA’s Oren Rosenbaum, and Rekha Murthy, a former PRX exec turned independent operator. From what I can glean from how the idea originally came across my plate (not to mention the framing in the Bloomberg report), Wondery’s Hernan Lopez seems to be leading the charge on this.

As the Variety writeup highlights, a number of major podcast publishers haven’t declared allegiance to the Podcast Academy, at least just yet. That list includes iHeartMedia (which, by the way, operates its own competing podcast awards), The New York Times, Entercom (which owns Cadence13 and Pineapple Street), Westwood One, and Luminary. The academy will start accepting applications for membership later in the spring.

The response to the announcement seems to have been broadly accommodating; a handful of independent podcast sources have explicitly cited the involvement of PRX, still an indie darling in certain circles, as a reason to be somewhat optimistic. But there are nonetheless pockets of skepticism, much of it rooted, understandably, in a familiar anxiety: that the academy and its awards system may end up creating structural advantages for its members (in particular, the employers of the people who make up its governing body) to the zero-sum detriment of everyone else.

It’s a fascinating parallel to broader platform monopoly worries. These concerns about the academy appear to be an expression of an elemental fear: that power in podcasting — historically valued for its decentralized nature where any creator could ostensibly build a following and a business without having to negotiate with gatekeepers — would be consolidated in the hands of a relative few by virtue of this academy. In other words, there exists some theoretical concern that the Podcast Academy represents the formation of a true gatekeeper.

(Of course, one could argue that Apple, with its informal status as the ecosystem’s impartial steward, has long been podcasting’s historical gatekeeper. Such a perspective is now challenged, as the recent competitive overtures by Spotify suggest a shift away from this status quo. In any case, Apple hasn’t exactly operated as a true gatekeeper, acting instead as a kind of distant God: life-giving, but ultimately passive in the overt shaping of things.)

All these things put together represents another episode in an on-going tension that has come to define podcasting’s recent history: on the one hand, you have an ecosystem that, on average, would like to accelerate the growth of its stature, fortunes, and reputation in broader culture, but on the other hand, you also have an ecosystem that, in some corners, is worried about a consolidation of power to achieve those ends, whether it’s through the spendy machinations of Spotify… or the formation of a formal trade body like the Podcast Academy.

Let me say that the body’s stated goal of “elevating awareness and excitement for podcasts” is by itself a tall task. Beyond the simple base function of brand marketing, we’re essentially talking about the academy being in the business of manufacturing cultural currency, relevance, and prestige. A sense of “cool,” even. Now I’m no reliable source in matters of cool — my vehicle of choice is a nondescript minivan, for practical reasons — but even I know that cultivating it is laughably hard and complicated.

Beyond that, the Podcast Academy also faces an even bigger and more specific challenge: It has to develop some sense of legitimacy as a body that speaks for both so-called industry professionals and independent podcasters. Justly or not, those two things have mostly been held in opposition to each other, a condition exacerbated by the ever-changing nature of the latter by virtue of its low barriers to entry.

Building legitimacy is perhaps more straightforward in communities that already have substantial gatekeeping. Forgive the radical oversimplification, but: When it comes to something like film or music, where the industrial story largely revolves around the formation of professional associations (typically grounded in seeking control of the high-cost infrastructures of production and distribution, realities that aren’t true for podcasting) and the subsequent clustering of power among a relative few who control those infrastructures, “legitimacy” is more clearly defined, because it’s eminently clear who holds control over the forces that shape the industry, and therefore its narrative.

Who “legitimately” gets to represent podcasting is less clear. Looking for an industry-shaping force? We’re at a moment where the podcast ecosystem’s underlying power dynamics have never been more fluid or contested — Spotify vs. Apple, how podcast advertising is understood and sold, and so on. Sure, any individual actor can step forward and attempt to claim legitimacy, but such attempts will likely be rendered inert fairly quickly. One example would be iHeartMedia’s own attempt at podcast awards, now in their second year. They’ve raised eyebrows not only because we’re talking about an awards system where the facilitator is also a competitor — thus evoking questions over the robustness, integrity, and trustworthiness of its process — but also because we’re about a company that has yet to establish strong association with the core identity of podcasting in the broader culture.

Perhaps we’ll eventually arrive at a place where podcast industry-shaping power is ultimately held by only a few, in which case all this blather about representational legitimacy will be rendered moot. Until then, the task for the Podcast Academy would be to establish legitimacy by assembling a meaningful coalition, one that adequately unites enough kingdoms between “industry professionals” and “independent podcasters” under a shared system of recognition.

There is, of course, a way to approach this task cynically — don’t really bother to be fully representative of the podcast universe as a whole; try to build the buzziest possible coalition out of a willing few; cultivate an system where the holdouts will ultimately see more benefits from participating than from standing outside in the cold. History is written by the victors, after all.

But the involvement of PRX — which has historically advocated to preserve the open nature of podcasting — suggests that such a strategy isn’t in the cards. But they’ll still have to contend with the conundrum inherent to representing independent podcasters: How can a discrete few speak for the theoretically infinite?

That’s a question the Podcast Academy will probably have to really grapple with if it wants to go anywhere at all. Whether it’s through continuous and consistent provision of meaningful community support — the webinars, networking events, white papers, and so on — or through a system of awards and recognition that actually feels fair to all parties, the academy must make the case that it matters to podcasting before it can make the case that podcasting matters to everyone else.

On the airwaves [by Caroline Crampton]. For as long as there have been podcasts, people have tried to put them on the radio. In 2005, CBS Radio transformed San Francisco’s KYCY into “K-You Radio,” which broadcast podcast episodes around the clock until it was shuttered two years later. Since 2008, PRX has produced PRX Remix, a rotation of podcast and podcast-like content that airs on public radio stations around the country — 24/7 for three of them. iHeartRadio launched its own all-podcast station in Pennsylvania just last year. The CBC, BBC, RNZ, RTE and other broadcasters all have radio shows that play a selection of podcasts, often interspersed with interviews with podcasters.

This month, another example arrived with the launch of Podcast Radio, a new digital station based in London. It can be picked up by DAB+ digital radios in London and Surrey, or via its website or apps. The station operates on a schedule (unlike PRX Remix, for instance, which prizes serendipity above appointment listening); from what I’ve seen of the selection so far, the shows being featured are mostly from the U.K. and almost universally small, independent productions without affiliation to professional audio outfits.

I spotted a few very active posts about this new venture popping up in podcaster communities throughout 2019, and wondered: Now that a podcast can be recognized for a Pulitzer Prize — among many other honors — do we still need to keep up the idea that there’s something qualitatively different between radio and podcasting?

I reached out to Gerry Edwards, founder and CEO of Podcast Radio, to find out more. His desire to do it, he said when we spoke on the phone late last week, came from his own frustrated podcasting experiences. He used to host a comedy show with a friend and was shocked at how their access to professional radio facilities and background in broadcasting didn’t translate into podcasting success.

“We had all the ease of access, we had content coming out of our ears,” he told me. “And still we were like, wow, people have to spend so much to be seen amongst all the other podcasts…We were in the U.K. comedy Top 10 for about four days, then we disappeared, and no one ever heard of our podcast again.”

Edwards had previously been involved in starting two other radio stations and felt using one as a vehicle for podcast discovery was worth a shot. It took just over a year to research all of the complexities of the venture, from the legal status of republishing podcast content to ensuring compliance with U.K. broadcast regulations. (Radio stations are subject to Ofcom’s code; podcasts aren’t.)

“We had loads of difficult conversations in the first six months,” Edwards said. “Effectively, we’re doing two things: We’re both creating a 24-hour speech radio station, and we’re marketing people’s podcasts.”

I think the substance of one of those difficult conversations was revealed on the BBC’s Media Show last week, when Steve Ackerman, managing director at the large independent production house Somethin’ Else (which just announced a partnership with Sony), revealed that he’d declined the opportunity to put his company’s podcasts on the station since there was no money on offer for the rights.

And that’s the perplexing thing about Podcast Radio. Edwards isn’t paying any podcasters for the right to rebroadcast their episodes; the thinking is that those featured are accepting “exposure” for their show and an as-yet unmeasurable boost in listenership as recompense. Baked in host-read sponsorship spots are permitted to remain, but anything that was being dynamically inserted isn’t broadcast. Expletives must be bleeped for Ofcom reasons, which means extra work for some podcasters, too.

Again, Edwards sees his station as a mechanism for podcast discovery, especially among radio-only listeners yet to try podcasts. He explained the lack of payments to podcasters by pointing out that at the moment, the whole thing operates at a loss. “We don’t charge them and we don’t pay them, because it actually costs us money to be a radio station at this stage. We’ve got all the fees and all the carriage costs.”

To maintain the station’s status as a “sampler” for potential listeners, Edwards takes only a few episodes from each show. “That’s not our model…You own the rights. We just showcase them and invite people to go and find your full series.” There are links for each show featured on the station’s website, as well as callouts by presenters, but it’s unclear how many casual radio listeners will go searching for them — or, indeed, how such conversions could be measured.

Edwards didn’t seem too sure exactly how the station will ever make money. For now, he’s put his own cash on the line, and he has an investor in the form of “one local guy who loves radio from the ’60s and ’70s who I talked to last February.” During our conversation, the prospect of the station running branded content came up, as did the idea of bigger publishers eventually paying for a broadcast slot, although both are hypothetical at the moment, and Edwards is keen to keep Podcast Radio focused on independent creators.

It’s really easy to be pessimistic about this venture — the financial model seems a bit vague, and the “content for exposure” transaction has always raised an eyebrow. But in a way, what Edwards is doing does at least feel somewhat respectful to podcasting’s low-barriers origins — when major broadcasters still often treat even the most highly regarded podcasts as some kind of poor relation.

Edwards does seem to have founded Podcast Radio out of an affinity for the form, as practiced by hobbyists, obsessives, and friends shooting the shit around a mic. Even with all my reservations around audience capture, conversion measurement, a viable business model, and most importantly, creator payments, I’m curious to see where this thing will go.

An alternative to podcast financing. I was tempted to kick this story off with a platitude along the lines of: “Starting something is the hardest part.” Then I thought better of it, because that’s not strictly true. Keeping something going can be much harder, as in the case of a conversation, relationship, or even this newsletter, because with starting something, you at least get the energy-sparking juice of novelty. Hell, you could even apply that argument to this very section: 76 words in and I’m barely keeping the energy up.

But wait! Don’t go, because I think this is a really interesting one, especially if you like stories about financing for creative projects. The peg here involves the fine folks over at Multitude, the Brooklyn-based podcast collective and production studio that we’ve written about a couple of times now.

To recap: Multitude is an independent outfit built around a handful of warm-hearted shows, mostly but not always of the relaxed conversational variety. Here’s how they sum themselves up:

Our mission is to create shows about the subjects we love, from mythology to basketball to Dungeons & Dragons, and build incredible communities around them—all supported by our community of MultiCrew members. We also help our clients produce, edit, market, and monetize great podcasts, and rent our NYC studio at affordable rates.

Learn more about our podcasts: a celebration of all things basketball for fans and newcomers alike; a sound-rich audio drama governed by the rules of Dungeons & Dragons; a grown man’s first tour through a beloved children’s book series; a drink-and-chat history lesson; and a passionate re-watch of an obscure queer TV show. We are all about enthusiasm, nuance, and thoughtful examination of the stuff we love.

They’ve consistently piqued our interest for the shrewdness of their operation; since launching in 2017, Multitude has nimbly pushed to diversify its revenue beyond the classic ad-support model, including a spirited adoption of direct support, primarily via Patreon and Memberful, and a tertiary business renting out studio space.

We can now add one more notch to the interesting-ness of their financial life: The Multitude crew are now among the earliest patrons of Patreon Capital, a new alternative financing service by the membership platform. The service provides cash advances to creators in exchange for a slightly greater sum of their future income generated on Patreon.

It’s a relatively speedy financing option, one that could come in handy if you need a quick burst of funds to finance a new project requiring higher-than-usual upstart capital. Which is precisely what Multitude needed.

The crew had been developing a somewhat experimental audio sitcom series called Next Stop. Because they were planning to build that series as a SAG-AFTRA production — and thus, needing to pay SAG-AFTRA rates — they were faced with requiring more upfront money than usual to get things off the ground.

As a smaller business, the issue was an acute expression of their on-going resource managing reality. “We were running into this problem where we have a ton of great ideas, but because we’re a small business, we constantly have to decide between putting money towards paying our people and getting more equipment versus saving it up for a bigger project,” said Amanda McLoughlin, Multitude’s CEO. So, instead of struggling with that balancing act and waiting for a longer period of time to save up the funds, they turned to Patreon Capital when the opportunity came up.

Patreon provided the team with a cash advance of around $75,000 to cover the production budget for the series, with the expectation for Multitude to pay back a slightly greater sum from Next Stop’s Patreon earnings over the next two years. (Neither party disclosed the exact figure that Multitude needed to funnel back.) As a matter of risk mitigation, the Patreon revenues of another Multitude show, Join the Party, will be taken as collateral if Next Stop isn’t able to generate enough return to fully pay Patreon back after the two-year period.

About a dozen of these Patreon Capital cash advances have been given out so far, and Patreon hopes to expand the program to cover more creators in the year to come. And as the collateral stipulation in the Next Stop arrangement suggests, Patreon will generally be focused on creators who already have a track record in developing solid followings on its platform. “This arrangement is directly tied to the fact that we have successful podcasts making money on Patreon, and that we’ve already invested in the Patreon system to pay this stuff back,” said Eric Silver, Multitude’s head of creative.

I’m told Patreon Capital is generally modeled after Shopify Capital; the Canadian e-commerce platform originally rolled out its version of the service in 2016, but it appears to have really vaulted forward in prominence over the past year. According to its latest earnings report, Shopify Capital cash advances were up to $115.9 million last quarter, a 61 percent increase from the same period the previous year. Stripe, the online payments processing giant, has also launched its own “flexible financing” service for businesses using its platform, called Stripe Capital, last September.

Patreon Capital, then, is an adaptation of those services for the creative class, whose members are increasingly being made to understand themselves as business entities — meaning they increasingly require the kinds of services that contribute to the support of conventional businesses. And given its history and positioning as a creator support platform, Patreon believes it’s in a better position than banks to provide creators with the business support they need.

“After all, Patreon has access to all the data about a creator’s earnings history, what they offer as benefits, how much they engage with their patrons…everything needed to forecast their earnings and retention, without a creator even needing to submit an application,” said Carlos Cabrera, the company’s VP of finance. “This would be essentially impossible for a bank to replicate.”

Patreon Capital is part of Patreon’s broader efforts to build a more sustainable future for itself. Around this time last year, Patreon’s CEO Jack Conte told CNBC that it needed to “build new businesses and new services and new revenue lines in order to build a sustainable business,” saying its core membership platform product — which at that time practiced a one-size-fits-all pricing tier that paid out 90 percent to creators — was likely to eventually become unsustainable. The company has since switched to a three-tier pricing offering and changed payment processing fees.

That context might be useful to know if you find yourself in Multitude’s position and are interested in taking advantage of Patreon Capital. This service is an undoubtedly useful one, and it has the capacity to help substantially more creators manage the risk of standing up new projects — but these things don’t exist in a vacuum, you know?

Next Stop is due to roll out in April, and I’m told that Multitude plans to publish a blog post breaking down the full budget for that production, so look out for that.

Photo illustration based on 2016 photo by Dorith Mous/A.M.P.A.S.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2020, 12:40 p.m.
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