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May 26, 2020, 9:47 a.m.
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When you leave a company, can you take your podcast with you? Here’s how one team did it

Plus: More thoughts on Joe Rogan and Spotify, the BBC releases its annual plan, and Spotify is reportedly going after podcasts again.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 260, dated May 26, 2020.

Pandemic watch. It’s Week 13, according to Stitcher’s pandemic timeline, or 12 weeks after the initial widespread implementation of stay-at-home measures in these United States. The word from the most recent Podtrac’s coronavirus update: the upwards slither continues, with the May 18–24 stretch seeing a 5 percent increase in downloads and a 4 percent increase in audiences compared to the previous week.

If next week tells the same story again, I’m retiring this feature.

Notes on Rogan/Spotify. Chances are you probably already know the details, but let’s quickly recap so we’re all on the same page.

Last Tuesday, it was announced that Spotify has struck a multi-year licensing agreement with The Joe Rogan Experience, widely understood to be one of the biggest podcasts in the business, that will see the show become exclusive to the Swedish audio streaming platform. The podcast, which previously was not available on the platform, will start appearing on Spotify on September 1, and the exclusivity will kick off at some point later in the year. It will remain free to consume, regardless of whether the listener has a premium subscription or not — they just have to be listening on Spotify.

Some key details to clock. First, the exclusivity will apply to both the audio and video versions of the podcast. This is notable, because video recordings of The Joe Rogan Experience tapings drive significant viewership on YouTube, and it ties in with previous reports about Spotify’s initiative to dip its toes back into the category by focusing on video experiences that primarily complement podcasts. (As opposed to investing in “premium video content,” which was the initial strategy grounding the company’s first video push back in 2016.) I generally think the Spotify vs. YouTube angle is slightly oversold, though I highly recommend checking out Julia Alexander’s excellent piece over at The Verge on what this means for video podcasting on YouTube more broadly.

Second, it’s important to reiterate that the Rogan deal is a licensing agreement, not an acquisition, which means The Joe Rogan Experience retains ownership of the show and full creative control over its output. There’s been some discussion about whether the concept of “full creative control” applies when there’s a possibility Spotify may someday implement its podcast advertising technology, Streaming Ad Insertion (SAI), on the show. Might be awhile before those discussions can be fully borne out; as I reported in the initial news drop last week, the show will maintain its current advertising sales relationship with PMM at this time, and further, it remains to be seen what kind of control publishers distributing over the platform will ultimately have over the SAI-enabled ad experience.

Third, and finally, the Wall Street Journal reported that the deal was worth more than $100 million, in part based on milestone and performance metrics. There’s been some discussion about what motivated Rogan to take the deal, and whether or not it was a smart move for someone who was clearly already making a substantial amount of revenue in his current position, so on and so forth. I don’t particularly care one way or another about these questions, but I suppose I feel compelled to say: the pandemic probably had almost nothing to do with this deal. This kind of thing gets cooked up over a much longer time period. Also: a high level of money guaranteed now probably always looks better than a theoretically higher level of money realized over time, particularly if you’re able to keep as many things the same as possible, which I sense is the case here.

Okay, with all that laid out, let’s think through some things.

First up, a slight correction: when I initially wrote up the news last Tuesday, I characterized The Joe Rogan Experience as being the “last big holdout” for Spotify, as far as the distribution of major third-party podcasts are concerned. This isn’t exactly true, given that Serial is still absent from the platform…though, curiously, you can find S-Town, Serial Productions’ other hit series, up on there. So Serial remains a property to watch, but don’t forget: Serial Productions is said to be in acquisition talks with The New York Times. Possibly relevant: the Rogan deal was announced shortly after This American Life, another industry heavyweight and sister company to Serial Productions, was finally made available on Spotify after a long absence due to a prior streaming exclusivity deal with Pandora.

But Spotify’s addition of The Joe Rogan Experience is arguably significantly more consequential, in part because of the exclusivity, but also because the massive show is unique in its massiveness. You could probably attribute the size to several different factors, including: a general longevity, stemming from an early adoption of the space (it launched back in 2009, and it was one of the few podcasts at the time hosted by someone with exposure in other platforms); its copious publishing volume (with a catalog of over 1400 episodes); its commitment to free speech at all costs that has fueled head-turning controversies (see: past comments that have been condemned as sexist, racist, and/or transphobic as well as the appearances of Alex Jones, the opportunistically vile misinformation-spewing conspiracy theorist); its undeniable currency of political influence, which falls from a politically activated following likely fueled by Rogan’s “I’m just asking questions” radical free speech disposition that feeds into a distinctly modern interpretation of authenticity (Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, and Tulsi Gabbard have all appeared on the show, and Rogan’s endorsement of Sanders was significant enough to drive its own cycle of controversy); it has some interesting overlaps with life-hacking media, which is a consistently potent genre (see: mushroom coffee); and Rogan’s genuine talent behind the mic (regardless of the politics, you really can’t deny that consistently holding formidable three-hour-plus interviews is a tremendous skill).

The Joe Rogan Experience is a very specific kind of show that can cultivate supremely sticky followings. Further, it has been constantly described to me as a strong gateway podcast; that is, the kind of show that can bring more listeners into the category. It has also been to said to cut across demographics in vast and unexpected ways. Apologies for using an anecdote instead of actual data (which I can’t find publicly available), but that squares with my own experiences: there are a lot — and I mean a lot — of people in my life whose primary exposure to podcasts is The Joe Rogan Experience, along with This American Life and Radiolab. And they really do run the demographic gamut. It’s frankly wild.

All of which is to underscore: there isn’t any other podcast quite as big, wide-ranging, engaged, and consequential as The Joe Rogan Experience, and this deal shouldn’t be read as anything other than a coup by Spotify. There simply isn’t any other major podcast piece left on the board, I think, not of this scale. I wouldn’t be surprised if the company starts big-game hunting in other territories. (I hear Howard Stern is “open to ideas” regarding his SiriusXM contract, which expires in December.)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here: the move comes with risks. The biggest thing to watch is how Spotify will respond when — not if — the show runs into another dust-up over speech, particularly as it relates to hate speech and misinformation. It might come in the form of another Alex Jones appearance, it might come in the form of something else entirely. But it will come.

Keep in mind, Spotify has already had some experiences with such dust-ups. Back in the summer of 2018, during a moment that saw a flurry of platforms — including YouTube, Facebook, Apple Podcasts, and Stitcher — completely remove content from Alex Jones’ Infowars media operation from their services, Spotify opted to remove only a select number of episodes, citing violations of its Hateful Content policy. The company received pushback for only pulling a few episodes, with critics asking whether Spotify did enough.

Around the same time, Spotify also ran into some trouble on the music side over a new policy around hateful content and conduct. That policy, which was initially expressed in the de-listing — but not removal — of music by R. Kelly and XXXTentacion from the platform, drew pushback from the music industry, with critics characterizing the policy as “ill-defined” and effectively a form of censorship. It would eventually be abandoned. (Here’s a good New York Times write-up about the whole affair.)

It’s interesting to look back and get a sense of how Spotify approached those two incidents. Both episodes suggested a sort of tentativeness and fumbling nature to the company’s management of the controversies. The select removals of Infowars episodes were, at best, a half-measure that wasn’t fully responsive to the moment, while its handling of the music side tussle had the feel of being caught unaware. “While we believe our intentions were good, the language was too vague, we created confusion and concern, and didn’t spend enough time getting input from our own team and key partners before sharing new guidelines,” wrote Spotify CEO Daniel Ek in the June 2018 corporate blog post, when the company initially sought to update the hate content and conduct policy in response to the pushback. “We don’t aim to play judge and jury,” he wrote later in the post.

I reckon that Spotify has developed scar tissue from those experiences, and that it’s made at least some preparations for the next time. Further, I have to believe that it knows what it’s getting itself into — how it’s leaning deeper into questions of judge and jury — by securing a multi-year exclusive licensing deal with The Joe Rogan Experience, in effect directly trying itself and some substantial proportion of its non-music content fortunes on the show. So I’m intensely curious to see how Spotify will respond to that first speech-related dust-up. Not to be over dramatic, but I really do think the response will define Spotify for the years to come. It will have bearing on its identity. Will that take the form of a more involved, substantial, and comprehensive approach to hateful content and conduct? Or will it manifest as a harder lean into hands-off distance and not aiming to play judge and jury?

If I were to be cynical about the whole thing, I’d wager that the approach will be somewhere along the lines of “whatever works to preserve the relationship.” Because I don’t know about you, but I see this as a situation where Spotify needs Rogan more than the other way around. Everything thus far — from the acquisitions of Gimlet Media, Parcast, The Ringer, and Anchor, plus its myriad exclusive programming deals, including the one with the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, and whatever else they have in the deal making pipeline — strikes me as the accumulation of mid- to long-term assets. “Win later” moves, in sports GM parlance (sorry). Signing Rogan is a “win now” move, a development meant to immediately accelerate a web of interconnected value-creating effects: attracting more podcast listeners onto the platform, luring more advertisers into considering SAI (even as Rogan maintains his existing podcast ad arrangements), and fueling more interest among podcast talent to cut deals and distribute with them. There will almost certainly be more major Spotify announcements to come over the next few weeks — we’re still yet to hear details about projects from Higher Ground, and you can bet they’re eager to keep the narrative momentum going — but the Rogan deal is one that grounds everything together into corporeality, shifting the theoretical into the real.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the deal might not work as well as Spotify thinks it will. I’ve seen some argumentation that platform exclusivity could very well result in listenership declines, as the increased friction of making some listeners switch over to a non-preferred might be too great to overcome. We’ll see, but I doubt it. As discussed, Rogan’s listenership seems uniquely sticky, and a critical mass will almost certainly move over. It’s already off in some respects, between the considerable jump in stock price following the deal’s announcement and the fact that Spotify has completely dominated the podcast narrative. In any case, the risk-reward balance generally tips in favor of Rogan: he’s that much richer right now, and he could always revert back to the open ecosystem when the deal is over. That is, if it continues to be as strong as it is today, which is an open question.

Is Spotify’s complete dominance over the podcast space a fait accompli? Maybe, I don’t know. It sure does seem like they absolutely have all the pieces to maximize their chances of doing so. But after living through the past few years, I’ve become one of those people who doesn’t really believe in the certainty of an outcome until it actually happens. Regardless of whether they do or not, though, one thing’s for sure: they have radically reshaped the power dynamic of the entire podcast ecosystem.

Transplants. Let’s say you’ve been making a podcast for quite some time now, but as it happens, the podcast doesn’t really belong to you or your fellow co-hosts. Instead, it’s owned by the big ol’ media company you worked for when you first started the show. Now let’s say, for whatever reason, you don’t work for that company any more. Maybe you and your co-hosts left for other jobs. Maybe it just felt like the right time to leave. Maybe that original company got taken over by private equity vultures. Who knows? But you still want to keep making the show in some form or another, because y’all really like doing the thing. Is it possible to recreate the same basic framework of the show — the same hosts, the same subject area, the same broad format, hopefully the same audiences, and then some — in another setting?

This is a line of questioning that’s probably been asked many times before, and it will continue to be asked as long as podcast makers bump up against the limitations of making shows for employers without personally owning a piece of the upside. So I thought it would be interesting to sketch out the experiences of one such team that’s trying to make that transition: the fine folks of Triple Click, a recently launched Maximum Fun video game podcast hosted by Kirk Hamilton, Maddy Myers, and Jason Schreier. All three hosts had worked together at Kotaku, the video game site under what is now known as G/O Media, where the trio once made a podcast called Splitscreen. They’ve since left the company, and  recently launched Triple Click to keep doing a show together.

I traded emails with Hamilton a few weeks ago about the rebuilding process, why they decided to roll with Maximum Fun, and what he thinks are best practices when it comes to transplanting existing listeners over to a new property.

Hot Pod: How did you all make the decision to roll with Maximum Fun?

Kirk Hamilton: We looked at (and pitched to) a number of different podcast networks, and also considered doing a Patreon. A couple networks passed; one promising network ultimately decided against taking on a fully formed outside show; one had terms that weren’t up to our standards. Maddy was the most familiar with Maximum Fun and had a positive impression of them as a listener; I’d always loved My Brother, My Brother and Me, and knew (and admired) Justin McElroy from back when he was writing about video games himself. He seemed happy making shows for MaxFun, and I knew his podcasts were successful, so that gave me a positive impression of the network too.

In the end, we were down to either doing a Patreon or signing up with Maximum Fun. Both options would make our new show listener-supported, but with slightly different models. A Patreon would be clearer-cut and give us a higher percentage of each listener dollar, but we’d have no institutional support and would have to do everything ourselves. I also already have a Patreon for my other podcast (the music show Strong Songs), and while it’s been great for me as a one-man operation, I was a little wary of launching a second Patreon for a show with two other cohosts.

Our first proper meeting with Maximum Fun helped us make up our minds. They were fantastic from the outset — organized, interested, enthusiastic about the possibilities. They clearly wanted to work with us and genuinely cared about helping us make a good show. It just felt right. And while it’s only been a few weeks, it definitely still feels right!

HP: What have you been able to do with Triple Click (and MaxFun) that couldn’t with the older Splitscreen incarnation?

Hamilton: In a lot of ways, our creative mandate is the same as it ever was. We’ve always been a self-contained show — Jason and Maddy both have good recording setups in their apartments, and I mix and edit every episode myself — so we never had to rely on anyone outside our little circle. Historically, that’s afforded us a lot of creative independence. Our former boss at Kotaku, Stephen Totilo, was always great about letting us do whatever we wanted with Splitscreen, and while the folks at Maximum Fun had some helpful feedback and general thoughts on how we might design a new show, they’re very hands-off creatively. So, we still get to do basically whatever we want.

The biggest differences are more in what we don’t have to worry about, and things we won’t have to do. In addition to having total creative control over the show, the three of us own Triple Click, which was never true of Splitscreen. (See, for example, the fact that whoever now controls the Splitscreen feed has been re-running old episodes in the weeks since we left, essentially turning the show into a zombie feed. And hey, they own the show, so that’s their right!)

Because we own Triple Click, we control everything about it. We don’t have to worry about anyone using our old episodes. We also don’t have to worry about some new executive editor or whoever coming in and telling us that, actually, next week’s episode is going to be about some brand or other, because of a company-wide ad sales initiative. Or that we’d wind up in a showdown with management over reading ads for a video game, or some other clear conflict of interest.

To be clear, none of that happened while we were making Splitscreen, but the worry was always there in the backs of our minds. As things at G/O deteriorated toward the end of 2019, that worry grew more and more pronounced. With Triple Click, we’ll always be able to make those decisions — show content, scheduling, fan interaction, ads, etc. — for ourselves. And we’ll always own our work.

Less dramatically, there’s also just the fact that Maximum Fun employs wonderful people who solve problems and handle technical issues, which makes it much easier to have a smoothly running show.

HP: Has it been a challenge to transition existing listeners over to the new show?

Hamilton: Our numbers are comparable to where they were at Splitscreen when we left, though it’s impossible to say how many of those were Splitscreen listeners, and how many are newcomers who found us through word of mouth or via MaxFun network promos. We’ve certainly heard from people who are new to Triple Click and never listened to Splitscreen.

Based on what I’ve seen, no, I wouldn’t say it’s been a challenge. But we were sure to consistently message and promote Triple Click as we announced that we were leaving Splitscreen, and to make sure that listeners had immediate access to the new show when they came and checked it out.

HP: You’re almost wrapping up the first month of the new show. What do you know now that you wish you knew when y’all first started the relaunch?

Hamilton: Some of these are things we did and that I’m glad we did, but I’ll also include a few lessons we learned:

(1) If you’re making a new show for an existing audience, don’t devote too much airtime to talking about how the new show will be different. Just make the new show, and make it good.

(2) It is worth paying lawyers to take care of business stuff — setting up an LLC, writing the operating agreement, filing for the trademark, etc. There’s always a temptation to fake it on that kind of thing, or try to do it yourself. We paid the money and got it done right, and I’ve been really glad for that.

(3) If you’re moving an existing audience to a listener-supported model, be really clear with listeners early on about what that means. Also be flexible, and open to their feedback on it.

(4) Be really clear about who on your team is going to be responsible for what, and do so ahead of time. We did a pretty good job of that from the outset, but there are still new responsibilities that come up, and each one requires one of us to say, basically, “Okay, [Maddy/Jason/Kirk], are you going to be responsible for that?” If you don’t clearly assign responsibilities, things start falling through the cracks alarmingly fast.

HP: What was the listenership like with Splitscreen? What do you expect/hope listenership to be like with TC?

Hamilton: I probably shouldn’t share specific numbers since it’s not our show anymore, but we were in what I assume is the middle? Not as big as the really big gaming podcasts, but healthy. With Triple Click, I’d love for us to be competitive with some of those really big shows. First Maximum Fun, then the world!

That said — and just speaking for myself — my main growth goal right now is to get the show to where it’s a sustainable project where we’re all having fun and are being reasonably compensated for the work we put in. It’ll be a few more months at least until we have a sense of what that looks like, of course. But with most of my recent projects (including Triple Click), I’ve been trying to focus on growth toward sustainability, as opposed to growth for its own sake. I want to make a cool thing for a long time; I don’t want to endlessly chase the horizon. That way lies burnout.

HP: My understanding is gaming podcasts that it’s a pretty big subculture in podcasting. What would you like to see more from the genre?

Hamilton: Gaming podcasts definitely occupy a big niche, and there are some super popular video game podcasts out there. In some ways Triple Click represents what I’d like to see more of: focused discussion, sharper editing, plenty of meaty discussion but a bit more approachable for people who like video games but don’t necessarily live and breathe them.

Also, less of a tendency to chew over every single piece of gaming news, which in the world of games often means drip-feed promotional materials (and marketing-related controversies) for games that won’t be out for months. I’d much rather listen to people talk about games that exist in the world, that I can play and already have my own opinions about. For inspiration, I look to now-defunct shows from the late 2000s and early 2010s like The Brainy Gamer andIdle Thumbs; I know Jason and Maddy have their own influences, too.

It’s been nice to seeWaypoint Radio finding traction in part by directly talking about politics on their show, and taking on the broader culture outside the world of games. I also wish there were more shows likeDev Game Club, where game developers casually hang out and talk about their work. (Another reason I loved and miss Idle Thumbs.) And I’d love to hear more diverse voices on games podcasts, in addition to the seen-it-all, played-it-all 20- and 30-something dudes who currently dominate most aspects of games culture. (I say that, of course, as another Dark Souls-loving dude who’s done his share of dominating the conversation over the last decade.)

I’d also like to see more scripted and story-based podcasts about video games. That’s not something we’re planning to do at Triple Click, at least not at the moment, but with the right team and the appropriate resources, a show like that could be great.

You can find the Triple Click podcast here.

WNYC Studios retires Nancy [by Caroline Crampton]. On Friday, WNYC Studios announced that it would not renew Nancy, the podcast focused on stories and conversations about the queer experience today, beyond its current season. The final episode will drop on June 29, and hosts Tobin Low and Kathy Tu, along with sound designer Jeremy S. Bloom, will be joining the team at Radiolab once the show ends. Three other contributors will not have their contracts renewed beyond June.

In an internal announcement, WNYC chief content officer Andrew Golis explained the move, saying that “The show has had an incredible team behind it and has a loyal core community…Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to maintain or grow the show’s audience, or get it on a path to be sustainable.”

Nancy won WNYC’s podcast accelerator in 2015, and has become highly regarded both as a podcast and as a source of queer representation in the audio industry. It’ll be interesting to see how much of the show’s energy and brand remain evident once its hosts are subsumed into the team of a much larger and longer running show.

BBC’s annual plan [by Caroline Crampton]. Last week, the BBC published its annual plan for 2020/21. This is usually a fairly big moment in the UK media year, since whatever the public broadcasting behemoth does tends to impact other publishers, and the corporation also provides work for many suppliers and freelancers beyond its estimated 22,000 employees.

While it’s true that the relationship between the government and the BBC has improved immeasurably in the last couple of months — outgoing director general Tony Hall has sounded very upbeat in interviews recently — there are still going to be cuts to come as the corporation tries to balance the costs against falling income.

The plan is still worth paying attention to as a record of the BBC’s desired direction of travel, no matter what the next few months bring. The commitment to the BBC Sounds app and on demand audio in general remains central to the effort to win younger audiences back to the corporation’s output, and there are plans to reshape the TV offering for the same reason.

The longstanding commitment that BBC Sounds will start bringing podcasts from third party publishers inside its walled garden — which would be a big change for the British audio industry — is restated in this plan, but there is still no word on how licensing and vetting would be handled for this, nor when it might actually happen.

Audible is reportedly going after podcasts again. At least, according to Bloomberg.

I mean, sure. We’ve been here with the audiobook giant before, back in 2015, when it assembled a team to build “not a podcast” podcast-style Audible Originals that would contribute to the value of a subscription, which resulted in some good shit like West Cork, The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson, and Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin. The company laid off that team in the summer of 2018 after a leadership reshuffle, pivoting to a new “we’re going to strike audiobook-first deals with hot authors” like Michael Lewis — who’s now making an actual podcast with Pushkin Industries — along with an assortment of random other stuff, like stand-up recordings and audio-only performances of theatrical plays. Meanwhile, Perel is now building an extended Esther Perel universe that includes a Spotify exclusive; that original team’s leadership, Eric Nuzum and Jesse Baker, has started their own podcast studio, called Magnificent Noise; and the producer who worked with Ronson on The Butterfly Effect, Lina Misitzis, went on to work on a Pulitzer-prize winning story from This American Life.

So yeah, maybe Audible has figured out what it wants with the category now, beyond throwing a bunch of money at people, and maybe it’s figured out how to adequately work with radio/podcast producers. Maybe.

Show notes. You Must Remember This is back with a new season starting today, and it’s built around the unpublished memoirs of Polly Platt, an unsung hero of Hollywood from the seventies to the nineties. The season will also be a treat for fans of Billions — and Mad Men, I suppose — as Longworth casted Maggie Siff to read Platt’s words. Platt died in 2011.

Also, this is neither here nor there, and I didn’t know why it took this long to get into it, but I’m currently plowing through the archives of the Blank Check pod.

ICYMI. I interviewed Bill Simmons about selling The Ringer to Spotify, the future of pods, and making stuff for a world without sports for Vulture, and that piece dropped last week. Check it out.

Suitcase by Drew Coffman used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 26, 2020, 9:47 a.m.
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