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June 9, 2020, 11:23 a.m.
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Podcasts about race are climbing the charts, and coronavirus shows drop out

Plus: How the Equality in Audio Pact came together, and Apple rolls out an exclusive show.

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 261, dated June 9, 2020.

The last pandemic watch, for now. It’s week 15, according to Stitcher’s pandemic timeline, or 14 weeks after the initial stay-at-home measures in these United States. COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to grow at different rates depending on where you are in the world. We are officially in a recession.

That said, Podtrac is officially retiring its Weekly Coronavirus Updates, indicating that U.S. podcast consumption is now largely back on track following the shock listening drops in the early lockdown. Further insight into the way podcast consumption played out over the past few months can be gleaned from the Pandemic Update breakout of the omnibus Stitcher Podcasting Report, released in late May: among other things, the decline in daily commute listening appear to be balanced out by gains in lunchtime listening.

Of course, we’re nowhere near a return to normal, and we’ll almost undoubtedly see further turbulence ahead. The nature of economic recovery moving forward remains unclear, and we’re all but certain to see another spike in national coronavirus cases in part due to the push to reopen the economy but also in part, perhaps, due to the extensive protests we’ve been experiencing.

The specific question we’ll be watching closely moving forward: even as podcast listening levels drift back on track, what will happen to ad spends?

This all-consuming moment. Where do we begin? We’re not even halfway through the year, and already it feels like 2020 has carried enough historical intensity to fill decades. The novel coronavirus pandemic has been enough to begin with, but the year has also seen several other events that would’ve been seismic in any other context: the Trump impeachment, the UK formally leaving the European Union, China-Hong Kong, so on. And lest we forget, this is all happening in an American presidential election year where the stakes have never felt higher.

Now, of course, we find ourselves in a breathtaking moment of political mobilization that’s washed over the United States and the world. Sparked by yet another series of police killings of black Americans — George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — hundreds and thousands have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality, racial injustice, and the severe structural inequities that have disproportionately harmed black communities for generations. The past two weeks have been, and continue to be, a blur: rivers of people, shows of solidarity, skirmishes with police, pressure campaigns against government officials, boiling point struggles over the fundamental culture of certain institutions.

It would be an understatement to characterize this ongoing protest movement as “effective.” In addition to successfully extractingspecific policy outcomesin several cities, the protests have also overwhelmed the public square for two full weeks and counting, to a point where the pandemic has been pushed to the back burner even though its severity hasn’t changed one bit.

The podcast world, as an extension of the media landscape, has reflected this all-consuming moment in several interesting ways. To begin with, you have the Apple Podcast charts, which mirror the digital consumption charts in other media — like the Amazon bestselling books list and the Netflix trending module — in the way that podcasts about race, or featuring race as a primary theme, have bubbled up its ranks.

At this writing, you can find the New York Times’ 1619, NPR’s Code Switch, and Crooked Media’s Pod Save the People jostling about the top 10, tucked in between The Joe Rogan Experience, Crime Junkie, Call Her Daddy, and The Ben Shapiro Show. Meanwhile, COVID-19 podcasts, with the exception of NPR’s Coronavirus Daily and CNN’s Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction, seems to have mostly fallen out of the Top 200 entirely. As always, keep in mind what the charts are supposed to be: a measure of heat more than bigness.

(I have to say: it’s been quite a while since I last gave the Apple Podcast charts serious consideration; there seem to be considerably more conservatively oriented shows charting effectively than there used to be, which makes the current foreground of podcasts about race all the more pronounced, even incongruous. Anyway, moving on.)

Another noteworthy phenomenon within the charts: the resurfacing of older, sometimes long-completed shows about race. NPR’s White Lies, for example, which played out its seven-part season last summer, has floated back up to the middle of the charts. John Biewen’s Scene on Radio is back in a strong charting position, presumably propelled by revived interest around his fourteen-part 2017 collaboration with the scholar, artist, and podcast producer Chenjerai Kumanyika, “Seeing White.” Floodlines, The Atlantic’s series about Hurricane Katrina that dropped in March, is back in the mix. About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge, which was released from March to May 2018, can now be found charting around the hundred mark, but in the UK charts, the podcast has been hovering at the top for the past week. Renay Richardson, who produced About Race (and is now the founder of a joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment, Broccoli Content), told us that the podcast has pulled around half a million listens in its first year of release. Last week alone, the show got around 265,000 listens.

These surges are likely fueled, in part, by those podcasts being featured in recent listen lists published by various publications, meant to guide their audiences towards media that could help them learn more about this moment and race in America more broadly. A partial list of those lists: WBUR, The New York Times, NPR, Oprah Mag, I think I’m supposed to be putting one together myself for Vulture, and should that come to be, I will likely do so haunted by Lauren Michele Jackson’s words, who asked in a recent Vulture essay within the context of books: “What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?

Beyond shows about race, the protests have also driven sustained coverage across the robust crop of daily news and politics podcasts. What’s been particularly interesting, at least to me, is seeing how the arguments around defunding or abolishing the police have been thrust into the spotlight. I’ve long been partial to the policy argument (surprise, surprise), but I’ve always tucked it away in the same mental bucket that houses something like, say, state-subsidized healthcare: a policy dream that’s well outside the American Overton Window. Indeed, it’s been a surreal experience to hear those arguments refracted through the lens of various “mainstream” newsy podcasts — a testament, perhaps, to one of the possible goals of protest movements: to push previously under-emphasized ideas and priorities into the public sphere (in part via media channels), to force serious consideration of its nuances, and to accelerate the normalization of those ideas.

This moment is also shaping up to be significant for how it’s opened considerable space for conversations about inequities in numerous other areas of society. Most visible and pertinent to this newsletter, of course, are discussions about inequities in media systems and workplaces, the podcast world first and foremost. Long characterized as disproportionately white and male in composition, podcasting has also come to suffer familiar concerns of unequal distributions of opportunity, particularly when it comes to black producers and other producers of color. The problem, in sum: anybody can publish, sure, but as podcasting continues to industrialize and corporatize, the increasing question is whether traditionally underrepresented demographics will have fair opportunities to participate in its gains or whether it will look like every other established media industry that’s come before it. This has to do, in part, with the flow of capital: who gets adequate investment, support, and resources for new podcast businesses, projects, and ideas. But for the most part, this has to do with workplace fairness and culture.

On that note, one thing that’s been striking about this moment is the extent to which podcast producers of color — along with media workers of color more generally — are speaking up against organizational harm and inequity. For instance… well, see for yourself:

This moment also has, I think, a distinct momentum that can possibly lead to tangible outcomes. Perhaps the most prominent and successful effort in this regard — that is, driving specific commitments towards better practices in the audio community — has come from the aforementioned Broccoli Content in the UK. Last Tuesday, Renay Richardson, Broccoli Content’s founder, brought forward a “Equality in Audio Pact,” which challenges podcast creators and companies to pledge commitment to five specific actions meant to push the community towards greater equality.

Those five actions are: (1) Pay interns / No longer use unpaid interns; (2) Hire LGBTQIA+, black people, people of color and other minorities on projects not only related to their identity; (3) If you are a company that releases gender pay gap reports, release your race pay gap data at the same time; (4) No longer participate in panels that are not representative of the cities, towns, and industries they take place in; and (5) Be transparent about who works for your company, as well as their role, position and permanency.

Some may argue that these are small asks relative to the full gravity of the inequities. But as Richardson tells us, these actions were designed to be, as a baseline, doable by companies of any size. And the push seems to be translating into outcomes. At this writing, over 100 companies, shows, and producers — on both sides of the Atlantic — have signed, including BBC Radio, PRX’s Radiotopia, and Somethin’ Else. Hopefully, there will be many more.

We’re going to switch over to Caroline now, who spoke with Richardson recently for insight into how the pact came together. We’re running that piece in an “As Told To” format, because…well, because we can.

How the Equality in Audio Pact came together [by Renay Richardson, as told to Caroline Crampton].

When it comes to the audio industry, I, like many black people in the industry, have been ignored when speaking of our treatment. Many of us are shut down, and many are fearful of the repercussions if we speak up. The culmination of the world watching George Floyd beg for his life and die a slow, degrading, inhumane death and Amy Cooper invoking her privileged white woman victimhood against a black man on camera, all during a global pandemic, was the breaking point for us all.

After many conversations with the Broccoli Content team — that’s Bea Duncan, Jaja Muhammad, Tony Phillips, and Hana Walker-Brown — during that first week of growing unrest, I had a call on Sunday evening with many of my black colleagues. One of the main things that kept coming up was: How do we make white people care? How can we make white people understand?

I couldn’t sleep that night, and decided that I wanted to put a challenge to the audio industry: a five-point pact that could lead to change. I had two points in mind straight off: no longer using unpaid interns, and not only hiring minorities for roles related to their identity.

On Monday morning, I went into our Broccoli video call where we catch up with each other about our weekends etc. and told them the plan. I wanted all the points to be actionable from today and something a company of any size could do. My job was to come up with the wording, and in our group chat, we mixed it up about what the other three points could be.

By 2 pm on Monday, we had five points we were happy with. I made a graphic (which was crap), then had a call with Sony. The call was about something else, but I told them my need to do something. I told them the points and they offered help with the graphics and suggested that I reach out to some production companies who would pledge ahead of time as it would show a united front. Falling Tree, Boom Shakalaka, WeAreUnedited, Don’t Skip, and We Are Grape all got back to me pretty much immediately, and by the next morning it was all set up.

The tweets announcing the pledge and putting out the signup form went out just before 9 am on Tuesday. The response was incredible. Obviously, one entitled white man I’ve never met or spoken to before emailed saying he should have been involved in the planning, but apart from that, we were off.

I then @‘d all the white people who usually ignore me. Strategic public shaming. By the end of day one we had 53 companies signed up including Acast, Transmitter Media, and Third Coast. It’s now over a hundred, and we’re listing them all on the Broccoli website here. Staff at these companies have put pressure on management internally, and that’s why places like the BBC have signed.

Let’s look at the five points in the pact.

(1) Pay Your Interns. If you pay interns, you open up the pool of people who can enter the industry. Even though it is illegal not to pay interns in the UK, many companies still use unpaid interns, which means only the privileged few get those opportunities.

(2) Hire LGBTQIA+, Black, people of color, and other minorities. If you hire diversely across your whole slate of shows, not just black people on black shows and queer people on queer shows and so on, you completely open up the possibilities around how topics are framed, what guests are booked and who is heard.

One of the suggestions when we were discussing this internally with Sony was that this should be framed in terms of making sure shows have diverse guests, that they feature diverse voices. But ultimately I think that if you hire diversely, it filters out into every level. You need to start from the source, and the source is who is producing and who is part of the creative process. You can be more than one identity — and also have interests in other things, I’m a fully formed human! I think for far too long the industry has got away just hiring people for what they see them as.

(3) Pay gap data. This is for larger companies that publish gender pay reports. The reason these reports are published is for companies to be held accountable for making improvements. What most people don’t know is that the majority of pay gap reports are only for the white employees. Race pay gap data is often separated out and released later, usually hidden behind a bigger story. We want the data released at the same time so we can all see the differences and companies be held to account and made to improve the gaps between black people/people of color and white people.

(4) Only representative panels. I mean, this should go without saying. If your panel is all white, you’re doing it wrong. But also if you’re holding an event in Edinburgh, for example, Edinburgh should also be represented on the panel. Let’s stop pretending knowledgeable people only live in London, New York, and LA.

(5) Be transparent about roles. A lot of companies with 10 or fewer employees will have a “team” picture which includes the black and brown faces of their contract workers. We want to see who works for you and know if they are permanent staff, getting all the benefits they deserve. If you have a team of 10 and one black face or no black faces, you are upholding white supremacy.

So many companies have all white employees with just a couple of black and brown faces as temps or on short contracts for their black show or their queer show or whatever. But when they do the team shots on the website, they’re in the pictures. Let’s be real, who actually works with you and what is their role. Be transparent about it.

I think we’re actually at a time now where people want to hear us. A lot of us have been saying the same thing for years, and been ignored. But now we finally have your ear, and you’re listening.

I definitely don’t want to make this about me, and I don’t want to run it going forward — I have my own job to do! But I do want to have things in place where we can each hold each other accountable, and members of staff can hold their companies accountable anonymously so they feel protected. Public shaming clearly works, but we need to scale that.

That said, I’m thinking of holding a town hall soon for all the people who have signed up to the pact and anyone who has questions about signing, because I think it would be good for us all to contribute to how we’re going to be accountable.

I’m kind of…”hopeful” is not the right sentiment. It’s more that I’m observing what’s going on, and I feel like something different is happening right now. And I think it’s a good thing.

You can follow Renay Richardson on Twitter here, and sign up for the pact here.

In other news.

(1) Not long after dunking on Luminary for severe under-performance relative to money raised, it’s come to light that former NBA player Baron Davis is part of the $1.2 million funding round raised by Blue Wire, a sports podcast company. According to Variety, Davis will also be launching his own podcast company, Slic, under the Blue Wire banner. Axios previously reported Blue Wire’s fundraise raise earlier this year, noting that it’s fueled in part by the company’s interest in creating long-form narrative sports content.

(2) In Denver, the podcast incubation hub House of Pod is providing free studio time “to any person of color who needs a safe, professional space to produce an episode about racial inequity or oppression.” The organization has also started a fund that will go toward sponsoring the pilot season of shows created by graduates of its podcast incubator, From the Margins to the Center, that specifically serves women of color.

(3) Quick hat-tip to this Twitter thread by Water+Music’s Cherie Hu, who points out that Spotify didn’t quite follow up on its promise to update its public-facing Diversity Data Report, which it initially made in 2018. According to Hu, Spotify did publish diversity stats for 2019, but it’s tucked away in a sustainability and social impact report meant for investors.

(4) On a related note, Spotify has opened applications for its Sound Up bootcamp, which will run from July 27 to August 21 in the US.

(5) KCRW’s 24 Hour Radio Race is back. Registration closes on Friday. Get in there.

(6) ICYMI: over in the UK, the BBC has appointed Tim Davie as its new director general. Davie was previously chief executive of BBC Studios.

(7) Edison Research with data on podcast listening in Canada, out last week: 37% of Canadians age 18 and older are monthly podcast listeners, about the same percentage of Americans. Full presentation deck can be found here.

(8) On a related note, Rogers Media, one of Canada’s major media conglomerates, has announced that Julie Adam will take on an expanded portfolio in her new role as SVP of TV and radio. Adam was said to be involved in Rogers Media’s move to acquire Pacific Content in 2019.

Show Notes.

(1) Slate’s Slow Burn returns for its fourth season tomorrow. Hosted by national editor Josh Levin, the new season examines the rise of the political rise of the white nationalist David Duke in Louisiana in the 80s and 90s. The move back to politics was first announced earlier this year.

(2) Earlier this week, Reveal dropped a new series on this ongoing moment of protest, called The Uprising. Al Letson, as always, is hosting.

(3) Next Tuesday, the CBC will debut This is Not a Drake Podcast, which is set to explore the history of Canadian hip-hop and R&B though the lens of Drake’s career.

Meanwhile, in Cupertino. One last beat on some Apple developments, which understandably flew under the radar over the past few weeks.

Perhaps most interestingly, the Apple Podcast platform recently saw the quiet release of The Zane Lowe Interview Series, designated within the platform as an Apple Music podcast. Lowe, of course, is the wildly popular radio DJ whom Apple recruited in 2014 to host shows and oversee programming for Beats 1, the Apple-operated live music station. The podcast seems to be a repackaging of interviews that Lowe has done through his shows on Beats 1, and thus should be considered a derivative product, at least for now. But it’s an interesting move to consider in the wake of Spotify signing an exclusive licensing deal with The Joe Rogan Experience, which takes away one of the biggest drivers of consumptions on Apple Podcasts and the open podcast ecosystem. It’s also interesting to consider against reports that Apple is beginning to make some plans around original podcast production, largely meant to promote its other media products, like its Apple TV+ shows.

While it doesn’t quite feel substantial in any way, the rollout of the Zane Lowe Interview Series does evoke some logistical questions around how a broader Apple Podcast original and exclusive programming strategy would work. Among other things, you can still access the show on third-party podcast apps, since almost all of them rely on Apple Podcasts’ indexing to populate their directories, though you can’t, of course, find it on Spotify. If Apple Podcasts getting involved with original programming means that those original podcast are exclusive to the open ecosystem, we could be talking about a very different kind of “platform wars” here.

Two other quick Apple things. First, Apple News will now feature audio versions of stories delivered on the app, presumably as some reaction to (and validation of) the recent New York Times acquisition of Audm. Second, the Apple Podcast team is hiring another editor for its front page, focused on US and Canada, based in Los Angeles.

POSTED     June 9, 2020, 11:23 a.m.
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