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July 14, 2020, 11:43 a.m.

“Take after take just gets nuked”: Podcaster parents, working from home while caring for kids, are burning out

Plus: A look at how the pandemic has affected podcast advertising in the U.S., and SiriusXM’s acquisition of Stitcher is official.

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

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 266, dated July 14, 2020.

It’s official: On Monday, SiriusXM formally announced that it is acquiring Stitcher.

According to the press release, the transaction will involve $265 million in a cash payment to Scripps, with an additional $60 million on the table based on performance goals through 2020 and 2021. This puts the value of the deal at $325 million, officially making this the most expensive podcast acquisition to date. The transaction is expected to close sometime in the third quarter. Until then, SiriusXM and Stitcher are expected to operate independently.

In a note circulated to employees, SiriusXM CEO Jim Meyer wrote:

With this acquisition, SiriusXM’s combined properties will contain the largest addressable audience in the U.S. across all categories of digital audio — reaching over 150 million listeners. With our team’s collective expertise in digital audio, analytics and ad tech, plus Stitcher’s deep experience in podcasting, I see significant opportunities ahead. Together, we can create a transformative one-stop shop to better meet the needs of podcast creators, publishers and advertisers — while also providing listeners with new ways to find and connect with great shows.

Emphasis mine, mostly to draw attention to how SiriusXM seems to be view itself (i.e. primarily as a monetization and distribution entity) compared to Stitcher.

If you missed my analysis on the deal in last week’s newsletter, you can find it here.

IAB: 2020 podcast advertising projections revised downward, some recovery expected. We now have a tangible glimpse at how the pandemic has affected podcast advertising in the U.S. — as opposed to listenership, which had been our primary focus over the past few months — courtesy of the IAB’s fourth annual podcast ad revenue study that came out Monday.

These reports are principally supposed to provide insights into podcast advertising for the year before, but the IAB moved to conduct a supplementary survey to account for the economic pressures of the pandemic. As expected, the U.S. podcast advertising forecast for the rest of 2020 were revised downward, from 29.6% in projected growth down to 14.7%.

That’s down by almost half. Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs, as the study found that ad revenues are expected to bounce back in the third and fourth quarters. They won’t meet previous projections, of course, but the bigger point is that the drops are expected to be less dramatic than originally feared.

Furthermore, the IAB maintains that podcasts can be considered to be “more resistant” than other media formats against the economic pressures of the pandemic. Three main reasons were cited:

  • The format’s relative flexibility around swiftly changing ad messaging to meet the pandemic context
  • One of podcasting’s faster-growing and more reliable genres, News, also happens one that’s heavily favored by advertisers; and
  • Already strong categories of podcast advertisers, like direct-to-consumer brands and financial services companies, are largely maintaining their market position despite the pandemic.

The downward revision comes after what turned out to be a particularly strong 2019, with the year’s podcast advertising hauls beating expectations. The sample reported having collectively brought in about $503.9 million, more than the estimated $467 million. The total market estimate for the year, meanwhile, was pegged at $708.1 million, more than the estimated $678 million. These numbers indicate a whopping 48% growth in U.S. podcast advertising revenue in 2019.

As always, it’s important to consider the study in its proper context. The report builds its findings based on surveys of self-reported numbers delivered by a pool of podcast publishers meant to represent a critical mass of the market, from which a broader total market estimate is generated. Participants in that pool include the usual suspects: Midroll Media, National Public Media, Spotify, Megaphone, and so on.

Should you peruse the methodology, you’ll see that this year’s survey received 19 responses — down from 22 in last year’s report — and that the follow-up Covid-19 impact survey drew only 17 responses. I don’t think that fundamentally changes anything about how we should read these findings, but it’s worth clocking nonetheless.

Anyway, don’t sleep on the 2019-specific findings. Here are the ones that stood out to me:

(1) The two things that publishers most cited as the drivers behind decreased revenue projections were “cancelled campaigns booked but not yet live” (31%) and “paused campaigns currently live” (25%). This gives a sense of scale to what we’ve anecdotally found in the early weeks of the pandemic: Publishers saw advertisers pull back their spends as they sought to figure out the new conditions.

Two other reasons worth noting: 19% reported attributed decreasing revenues to a lower volume of advertising requests, while only 3% reported not having enough impressions available to tap into advertising campaigns, which I read as a proxy for changes in listenership.

(2) As discussed earlier in this write-up, news appears to be the podcast genre most favored by advertisers. Specifically, the genre captures 22% of the overall advertising revenue share. The next three largest categories are comedy (17%), society and culture (13%), and business (11%).

This year’s report doesn’t show the changes in percentage share by content genre compared to previous years. I suspect this might have to do with the changes in category usage: this year’s report seems to be using the Apple Podcast taxonomy — hence buckets like “society and culture” — for the first time, which means that you might not get clear matches with the genres listed in the last few reports. So keep that in mind if you go back to check things out.

(3) Here’s a data point that should be meaningful to advertising agencies that have been in podcasting for a while: the proportion of baked-in and dynamically inserted advertising remained virtually unchanged between 2018 and 2019. I imagine we should expect this to shift dramatically when Spotify moves to kick its streaming ad insertion product — and its supply chain, presumably provided via Anchor — into high-gear, in which case I assume those dollars will be classed as “dynamically inserted advertising.” Also relevant to this trend: the growth of programmatic advertising-minded hosting platforms like Megaphone over time.

Meanwhile, host-read ads continue to be the dominant ad format, growing their share from 63% to 66% over the past year.

(4) Direct-to-consumer brands still represent the largest share of podcast advertisers, unchanged at 22% compared to last year, but fast-growing advertiser types include telecommunications, consumer packaged goods, and “professional services for non-business entities.” The advertiser types with decreasing shares includ financial services (though that still makes up a sizable 16%), business-to-business companies, and automotives.

All in all, the IAB study indicates a broadly positive outlook for podcast advertising despite the pandemic. The stark reality remains: it could have been so much worse, even catastrophic. In late March, I was having conversations where podcast producers and executives were quietly wondering if overall audience numbers would hold, let alone advertising. I wonder if some of this resilience could well be attributed to podcasting’s  youth and smaller size relative to other media.

Keep in mind, though: the structure of the IAB study is principally built around the biggest podcast publishers, meaning that it may very well not be capturing the experiences of the smaller- to medium-sized publishers in the data it’s captured. (Not unlike, you know, the way using corporate indicators to reflect the state of the economy often glides over how small businesses are faring within the economy.) While the story of podcast advertising writ large appears to be positive, it might also be hiding a story of centralization.

Furthermore, while advertising is the largest and most prominent business model for podcast publishers, it isn’t the only relevant business model in this ecosystem. There’s a growing appetite for and push toward non-advertising revenue channels, one that applies to both bigger publishers and smaller independents. This appetite has been fueled in large part by the pandemic, which brings attention to the volatility and vagaries of advertising money, but it’s also been driven by an increasing sense that the pipes of podcast advertising will likely end up being largely controlled or dominated by the bigger corporations: Spotify, iHeart, SiriusXM (now that the Stitcher sale has been finalized), so on.

Historically, the strongest non-advertising revenue channels have been direct support (Patreon, membership, so on) and live events (now indefinitely on hold, or transmuted into the infinitely more competitive live streaming space), and to my mind, there hasn’t yet been a persistent data collection effort to track the health of any of those channels. Perhaps there should be.

Burnout while parenting and podcasting [by Caroline Crampton]. Burnout is a topic we’ve been consistently keeping tabs on for a while here at Hot Pod, especially since the substantial reader response we got to this piece last spring. From all the conversations I’ve had about this since, I’ve come to realize that there are several traits specific to podcast work that can amplify existing stress: The relentless production schedule of a weekly podcast, the fact that many professional or semi-professional podcasters work either alone or in very small remote teams with each person fulfilling multiple roles, and the personal or confessional nature of plenty of audio work.

Put simply: even in the best of times, podcasters are prone to burning out, and the last few months have most emphatically been the worst of times.

Unlike some areas of the media and entertainment industries that had to pause production all together, podcasting has largely been able to keep going, with producers working from home and contributors rapidly adapting to recording in their closets. But even if most audio production work has stayed somewhat the same, an awful lot about the rest of podcasters’ lives has changed dramatically, especially for those who are parents or caregivers to children.

With schools and many daycares still closed, people are not only trying to podcast from home, but also fill in for what kids are missing out on. Of course, this has been a challenge across all industries, with it being obvious to lots of people from the start that the math of working full-time remotely while at the same time running a homeschool timetable just doesn’t compute. It’s an impossible situation, one that Farhad Manjoo summed up in this New York Times opinion piece from April.

But for those who work in audio and need to edit for long periods, or record links and tracking to the highest possible standard that the moment will allow, there’s the extra challenge of finding the space and quietness to do that. It might just about be possible to bash out an email with one finger while comforting a toddler, but you really can’t narrate a segment of a show that way. “Take after take just gets nuked,” was how one anonymous podcaster put it to me.

I’ve had lots of conversations with parent-podcasters operating under these conditions in the past couple of weeks, and a few consistent themes started to emerge. The first was the constant disruption of the day, which makes it really hard to settle down with any one task and get it completed.

“In the heart of lockdown, I felt that I couldn’t focus on any work for more than 10 minutes,” Canadian producer Lauren Bercovitch said. “I could shoot off an email here or there, but actually giving dedicated brain power or a sustained hour of thought toward one thing was nearly impossible. So tasks like writing a script, reading a script, giving notes on an edit — I couldn’t accomplish any of it.” Her husband Chris Kelly, who is also her colleague at the Vancouver based production shop Kelly & Kelly, echoed this, describing how the days were segmented into “little bursts of work.”

The second big topic that came up was just sheer exhaustion. As a non-parent myself, I hadn’t truly appreciated the scale of this task until one of my correspondents (who wished to remain anonymous) pointed out that there was never a waking moment when she wasn’t working, parenting, or both. “Down time no longer exists,” she said over email. “After bedtime in the evening is one of the few times I can get any uninterrupted work done, so I stay up really late now.” Bercovitch added that lockdown reminds her of being postpartum, because of “all the unexpected mental labor, and there being not enough hours in the day.”

The third thing that came up a lot was the strain induced by the open-ended nature of this situation. Some people I spoke to expressed that this would all be easier to handle if there was a definite end point — a concrete date when in-person school would resume, for instance. Yet that kind of certainty seems a long way off, with many places reintroducing some lockdown measures and a lot of doubt about when or even if schools can safely reopen.

Meanwhile, it’s summer. Freelance writer and producer Samantha Hodder said that the start of the school vacation has reduced her available time even further. “While ‘school’ was still happening, online, we had a wee bit of a schedule. And I could get up early and work away for a bit until they woke up,” she said. But now? “It’s completely nuts… It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. And the bottom line is it’s not very productive.”

Bercovitch and Kelly both said that finding a routine had been crucial to getting work done. “We had to become really focused and intentional with our time and what kind of work you could try to accomplish in that timeframe,” Bercovitch said. “We eventually built out a routine that gave space for each of us to accomplish what we needed, but it was massively reduced hours.” They traded off their kids so that one person could get stuck in an edit for a few hours, and then swapped over, but were still trying to cram what would normally be a full day’s work into a few hours.

While I was looking into all of this, I revisited the World Health Organization’s definition of burnout, which it classifies as an occupational phenomenon — rather than a mental health condition — with three major dimensions: chronic workplace stress, energy depletion, and reduced professional efficacy. This seemed to me to encapsulate what the parents I’d spoken to were describing perfectly — a classic burnout presentation, in other words.

I finished a lot of these conversations wanting there to be a solution to all of this, which of course there isn’t, beyond it becoming safe for childcare to resume. Most of the parents I spoke to were fine with that. Many requested to speak on background or anonymously because of concerns that employers would react poorly to accounts of bad working experiences at the moment.

What many did want, though, was solidarity and visibility. As Hodder put it: “Maybe I just need some virtual high-fives and mild encouragement. These days feel long and the windows for productive work are short.”

This week in Spotify

(1) From the Wall Street Journal: “Omnicom Media Group plans to spend $20 million on advertising in podcasts distributed bySpotify Technology SA under a deal covering the second half of this year, the companies said.”

At this point, Omnicom’s advertising will be limited to Spotify’s exclusive and original podcasts. I see this as an experimental effort to kick the tires on Spotify’s emerging ad products and generate data. After all, $20 million is a fairly small percentage of the kind of budget Omnicom typically controls.

(2) On Tuesday morning, Spotify rolled out revamped podcast charts across 26 markets. They come in the two flavors you’d expect: Top Podcasts and Trending Podcasts. The new charts are billed as a discovery mechanism, but they’ll probably be a huge point of focus for publishers as well, if the persistent discourse around the Apple Podcast charts is any guide.

Audible’s chief content officer is out barely a month after stepping into the job, Bloomberg reports.

Brad Schwartz, who joined from Pop TV, was supposed to lead the audiobook service’s further expansion (or revisiting) of original programming, in part to challenge the growing demand in the podcast category as well as Spotify’s ongoing incursion into the on-demand audio space.

According to Bloomberg, Schwartz’s departure takes place after Audible employees discovered a 2018 lawsuit filed against Pop Media Group, which cited a toxic workplace culture. Schwartz wasn’t a defendant in the lawsuit, but his role as a Pop TV executive caused Audible employees to push back against his hiring, leading to the company reconsidering Schwartz’ employment.

This isn’t Audible’s first executive tumult in connection to problems associated with workplace culture. In December 2017, two senior employees — including then-content chief Andrew Gaies — abruptly resigned during a company review of internal workplace culture, according to CNN.

Schwartz’s dismissal takes place amid a press push around one of Audible’s big original programming projects: a star-studded adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.

On promo swaps. Got a note from a reader that’s stuck to my brain:

“Feels like a hugely disproportionate number of podcast ads are for other podcasts, to a level that doesn’t feel sustainable given overall audience growth…from a producer side, it’s weird. A promo swap is super satisfying and feels like audience engagement and growth, but then I also feel like it’s all an illusion.”

Are promo swaps actually effective, particularly when podcast ad loads are carrying an increasingly large number of promo swaps? Or do they more realistically emulate thinner and thinner slices of the same stick of butter?

Show notes.

  • Missed this last month: the CBC is re-releasing episodes of Wiretap, the legendary Jonathan Goldstein radio show that ran for 11years, as a podcast. Goldstein is now the host of Gimlet’s Heavyweight, and in the wake of ongoing conversations about intellectual property ownership, it’s worth noting that Goldstein himself does not own Wiretap.
  • Succession may not be coming back for a while, given that production on the third season wasn’t completed by the time the pandemic shut things down, but that’s not stopping HBO from making an official podcast on the show. And in an unexpected twist, the podcast is hosted by Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett.
  • Decoder Ring continues to be an extremely solid show that I simply need to be talking about more.
  • The Ringer’s Cam Chronicles is out this week.
  • Shout-out to LAist Studios, with whom I collaborate on Servant of Pod, for the release of and California City.
POSTED     July 14, 2020, 11:43 a.m.
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