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July 22, 2020, 8:18 p.m.
Business Models

“The idea is to have more Serials”: The New York Times acquires Serial Productions and partners with This American Life

“Our goal is not to change Serial’s DNA at all…For the people who love Serial — and there are millions of them — the idea here is to have more Serials.”

On Wednesday, The New York Times formally announced that it will be acquiring Serial Productions, the spin-off studio from This American Life led by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig, and Neil Drumming. You might know it as the shop that houses, well, Serial, along with the 2017 hit S-Town. (The Wall Street Journal broke this story late Wednesday afternoon.)

That’s not all. In addition to the acquisition, the Times also announced that it has entered “an ongoing creative and strategic alliance” with This American Life. This one’s pretty strange and complicated, so pay close attention: while Serial Productions will now be a New York Times property, This American Life will remain an independent operation, though this “strategic alliance” means that Serial Productions and This American Life will continue collaborating creatively. This arrangement is also distinct for another reason: the long-time public radio show and podcast will now be collaborating with the Times on co-marketing and advertising sales efforts.

PMM had been This American Life’s main ad sales rep for a long time, and I’m told it will continue to represent the show through the end of the year. The Times will take over sales in January.

And that’s also not all. Squeezed into the press release is word of Serial Productions’ latest project, slated to drop on July 30: Nice White Parents, which features Chana Joffe-Walt examining the role that white parents play in the shaping of public education.

Okay, let’s go back to the acquisition. This is a stunning development, but it’s been in the hopper for a while. The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin first drew attention to the possibility back in January, when he reported that Serial Productions was shopping around for a sale. The Times was the lone company cited as a potential buyer in that write-up. The possibility was raised again in a media column by the Times’ own Ben Smith, published in early March, which reported that the studio was for sale at a $75 million valuation, though it was expected to go for much less. Formally, though, the size of the deal is not being disclosed at this time. Believe me, I asked.

Speaking of which, I was able to jump on the phone a few hours ago with Julie Snyder, Serial Productions’ CEO; Sam Dolnick, New York Times assistant managing editor; and Stephanie Preiss, Times VP of audio and TV, to talk about the development.

Here’s what I learned: to begin with, the deal apparently came out organically, as the Times, working off the blockbuster successes of The Daily, sought to figure out what heights to go after next. “We have been enormous admirers of This American Life and Serial for a long time,” said Dolnick. He went on to say:

Over the past year or so, as audio became more important to the Times, we started thinking: “What could this look like? What’s the biggest swing we could take?”

So we started to talk with Ira Glass about This American Life and what kind of partnership that could look like. He pretty quickly introduced us to Sarah and Julie, and we started talking about possible arrangements, and it was clear from the beginning that we had a shared sense of journalistic values, a shared sense of mission, and the same kind of drive to tell these stories right now. So we tried to figure out the right way to tell these stories together, and this ended up being the way.

When I asked if This American Life was ever on the table as an acquisition, it was a flat no. “Ira made it pretty clear that it was his company, that it was going really well, and that he wasn’t interested in selling,” said Dolnick.

For Serial Productions, the decision to sell fit neatly into its philosophical priorities. Snyder pointed to S-Town as a starting point in the way the team thought about what it wanted to do moving forward. “It felt exactly like something we wanted to be doing more of,” she said. “We wanted to keep on doing the Serial podcast, but we also felt like there were a lot of different types of stories that we wanted to pursue.”

But Snyder also noted that Serial Productions wasn’t created with the intent that it would be handled as a conventional capitalistic enterprise. “We didn’t have startup entrepreneurial visions of saying, ‘We want to be pumping out podcasts,’” she said. “[It also wasn’t] the kind of thing where we were like, ‘Let’s set ourselves up to be acquired.’”

The vision was to be a story-first company, but the managerial mechanics involved in expanding within that vision were constraining. Long having operated as a “one project at time” kind of team, Serial Productions wanted to set things up such that it could publish more than one project every other year.

Plus, Snyder just didn’t have a huge interest in running a company. “It’s not where I come from, you know?” she said. “I feel like I’m really good at supporting reporters and producers and helping them get the shows, Actually thinking about the company strategically was the type of thing that people would suggest to me. I would feel like it all made sense, but I would always wonder, ‘Isn’t there someone else that could be thinking about this for us?”

Hence the decision to sell to the Times, which would provide the infrastructure and stability sothat she wouldn’t have to worry about it any more.

Once over at the Times, Serial Productions will be largely independent from the rest of the Times Audio operation for now. “We’re thinking about Serial Productions as being adjacent to the Times newsroom,” said Dolnick. “Julie and her team already have the next three to four projects in flight — they have a full plate, and they’re moving fast — and their stories are going to come from the This American Life pool. The Daily and the Times Audio team, on the other hand, are pulling more from the Times newsroom.”

He added: “Operationally, they’re going to be distinct for a while…as the partnership unfolds, I think we’re all excited about different kinds of collaborations that we can do, but that’s not day one.”

There’s one more piece worth exploring: whether this acquisition is part of an effort leading up to some sort of new paid audio product. The possibility of this was first raised in Ben Smith’s column from March, when he highlighted a strategic idea among some Times executives that a Serial Productions acquisition, bundled together with The Daily, could serve as the basis for something akin to the popular and revenue-generating Times Cooking app. An “HBO of Podcasts,” as it were. Indeed, the fact that the Times made another audio-centric acquisition earlier this year — of Audm, a subscription audio platform that produces high-quality performed reads of select magazine articles — further supports the possibility that we might see such a gambit.

Preiss suggested that the value of Times Audio is best realized as a free product, at least for now. “I think what The Daily has taught us is that audio can help drive our consumer subscription business by acting as an entry point for people to Times journalism…we are very interested in how we can add fuel to that fire,” Preiss said. “At the same time, audio is a great advertising business for us, and it’s a growing business.”

So there you have it: the legendary studio behind the one of the biggest podcasts of all time is going to the company that publishes one of the other biggest podcasts of all time. And while it might not end up amounting to some sort of paid audio product, this move nonetheless deeply contributes to the Times’ increasing power in the space. “We want to establish the Times as a real center of gravity for audio journalism, news, and storytelling,” said Dolnick. “Our goal is not to change Serial’s DNA at all…For the people who love Serial — and there are millions of them — the idea here is to have more Serials.”

This deal comes during a year that’s already rich with podcast acquisitions. In February, Spotify bought The Ringer, Bill Simmons’ podcast-first digital media company, in a deal reportedly valued up to $250 million. In May, the longtime celebrity-to-podcast pipeline facilitator PodcastOne was bought by a sorta-kinda music streaming platform called LiveXLive for $18 million in an all-stock deal. And earlier this month, Stitcher switched hands from Scripps to SiriusXM in what has been the biggest podcast deal to date, at $320 million.

Indeed, the volume of acquisitions is such that, with each new deal, there’s a wave of uneasy groans and jokes across certain corners of the podcast community about how consolidated and corporatized podcasting is becoming. Can’t blame ‘em, frankly.

But I’d argue that Serial Productions is perhaps the most deserving of this. That organization was, in my opinion, in a complicated place within the industry context. It’s a legendary creative studio in what has become an incredibly hot market. Incentives were building to sell, to capitalize on what may be a fleeting moment — and the team has every right to cash in on an industry it helped forge. It was also a situation where there probably weren’t many appropriate buyers, with both deep pockets and a compatible editorial culture. I mean, who else is out there? Spotify? SiriusXM?

In the Times, the team had a logical outcome. The Times offered a home that’s in line with Serial’s editorial and journalistic values, a home that actually adds to its brand, and perhaps most importantly, a home that insulates it from the anxieties of wherever the Apple-Spotify podcast platform war — to the extent that it exists, which it does, but not in the way I think people traditionally assume it looks like — goes.

I suppose it’s all good validation too. In this hyper-capitalist American society, it is the unfortunate case that we tend to overemphasize acquisitions as successful legacy-sealing outcomes for any enterprise (whether or not they are actually valuable), while flattening out the achievement of simply being successfully independent (shout-out to Radiotopia).

Serial Productions — the creators of a phenomenon that radically accelerated the growth of an entire medium — wanted to do more, but they couldn’t do so independently. So they cashed out for greater institutional support, and they are deserving of it.

Photo of Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig, and Ira Glass by Sandy Honig.

POSTED     July 22, 2020, 8:18 p.m.
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