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2021 Year in Preview

Given the complete annihilation that 2020 brought to the very notion of future projections, I couldn’t help tensing up when I sat down to outline this preview column. But hey, there’s broader usefulness to the conceit of a preview column that goes beyond… well, just projecting ahead. It’s an opportunity to reset the frame, take stock of all the key pieces, and set the stage for what comes next. So we’re going to do just that.

Here’s how this is going to work. The majority of column will involve going five major story buckets that are each packed with a cluster of interrelated questions, trends, and dynamics that most intrigues me going into the year, and then I’ll wrap things up by throwing in a few smaller miscellaneous story threads, because I need to clear out my notebook.

Let’s get to it.

Will all those acquisitions pay off for Big Podcasting?

As you might recall, 2020 closed out with yet another flashy podcast acquisition. Right before the New Year, Amazon announced that it was buying Wondery for its Amazon Music service, where it will presumably be made to pump out original content rendered exclusively at some point to lure new users to the platform. I’m tempted to think this will be the last acquisition of its kind for a while, based on the premise that Wondery was perhaps the last shiny asset left on the market for an eager acquirer looking to buy their way into the podcast buzz. There will almost certainly be other purchases made in the months ahead, but I doubt they’ll be as large or attention-grabbing. (I’ll set a plate aside, though, just in case I need to eat my words.

In any case, Amazon’s purchase of Wondery caps a stunning two year-run of major podcast acquisitions. To go over the highlights from early 2019: Spotify bought Gimlet Media, Parcast, Anchor, The Ringer, and Megaphone; iHeartMedia bought Stuff Media and Voxnest; SiriusXM bought Stitcher and Simplecast; and Entercom bought Pineapple Street and Cadence13. Now, we can also talk about the New York Times buying Serial Productions and Audm — which were very notable! — but I’d like to keep the focus on the platforms and the companies with existing broadcast businesses, as their collective activities tell a specific story: one that sees competition for control over podcast audiences intensify among a certain set of corporate players.

Of course, acquisitions are only part of this story. The past two years also saw a sharp expansion in the number of content deals doled out by Spotify, iHeartMedia, and Audible, the audiobooks giant otherwise known as Amazon’s more meaningful audio streaming platform. Some of these deals were well-recorded, as in the case of Spotify’s high-profile partnerships with Higher Ground, Archewell Audio, and Joe Rogan. But also worth noting are the many, many more deals forged with a generation of newer talent, a good proportion of which went unannounced.

The large sums of money spent over the last two years can broadly be read as investments of potential. For Spotify, its acquisitions and content deals were about setting the company up to realize some grander, all-consuming version of itself. iHeartMedia’s deals were about switching their narrative away from being a bankrupt broadcast radio business into something else. SiriusXM, Entercom, and Amazon Music’s activities were simply about getting them into the shiny podcast business in the first place.

As 2021 unfolds, the framing should start shifting from a matter of potential to a matter of  outcomes. How, specifically, are these acquisitions and investments supposed to pay off for these companies? How will increased participation by these companies alter the shape of the podcast ecosystem? Who gains, who loses, who gets added to the mix, and who will be pushed out entirely?

On the flip side, here’s an equally important question: what does it mean if these companies ultimately fail to realize proper value from these investments in podcasting? How will those failures impact podcasting as a business? (How will we know if they fail?) To be clear, podcasting will continue to exist independent of whether any of these companies figure out their place in the podcast ecosystem, but it’s useful to acknowledge that those theoretical failures will probably have knock-on effects on the space, given the high visibility of these companies and the way they influence podcasting’s narrative among advertisers.

How will the rest of the ecosystem re-organize around Big Podcasting?

Let’s start with Apple.

You could reasonably frame the past two years as a story of Spotify spending an outsized amount of money to get its podcast listenership up to a point when it can match and eventually outpace Apple. Despite everything that’s happened recently, Apple is still thought to be the structural incumbent in terms of podcast distribution, and more importantly, it remains the focal point of the open podcast ecosystem. As currently composed, a healthy Apple Podcasts app, then, broadly equates to a healthy open podcast ecosystem, and it follows from this that the competition between Apple Podcasts and Spotify can be read as a proxy tension between open podcasting and something relatively more closed. What Apple does to keep pace with Spotify and its other Big Podcasting peers, then, should be a significant matter of concern for those who have a stake in open podcasting.

However, it’s also worth noting that Apple Podcast’s future in the podcast ecosystem remains a little unclear at this point in time, which raises an uneasy state of affairs. We know that the team in Cupertino doesn’t appear all that interested in competing against Spotify on the latter’s terms. They’re not buying audio content houses, they seem to be building exclusive content deals for shows meant to promote its other Apple universe products, and they haven’t really pushed any significant new feature innovations for some time now.

But they are doing something. The Apple Podcast team has made some intriguing hires over the past year, including Jake Shapiro, the longtime podcast technologist, and N’Jeri Eaton, a former NPR programming exec who’s now leading original podcast development at Apple. What, exactly, is Apple Podcasts’ intent here? And will the consequences of that intent be enough to preserve open podcasting?

Also worth tracking: how the increasing competition between Apple, Spotify, newly-participating distribution platforms (like Audible and Amazon Music), and companies with existing broadcast operations (like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM) will affect the ways other podcast publishers directly connect with their audiences. How will these publishers, big and small, respond to an environment of more potential gatekeepers? How will they assess relationships worth pursuing? And how will some fight back to reduce the influence of these aspiring gatekeepers?

There is also the question of how the increasing competition for control over podcast audiences will affect the process of doing business more generally. Consider the basic interactions of podcast advertising, for example. There continues to be some friction as to the best way to report and sell impressions: emphasis on new episodes over a sixty period versus monthly per-episode downloads on the aggregate, that kind of thing. Now that we’re seeing increasing participation by platforms and corporations with their own analytics universe, deep histories with advertisers, and internal sales logic, how will their collective activities influence the ways downloads, listens, and impressions are bought and sold for the majority of all publishers?

How will the relationship between creative workers and organizations change?

One of the more interesting stories last year revolved around the organizing efforts mounted by creative workers from the three acquired content shops at Spotify. Having unionized with WGA East, employees from Gimlet Media, Parcast, and The Ringer are laboring to push Spotify management into a new contract with them, even staging a two-hour virtual walkout event in December as part of the campaign.

We still don’t know how those efforts will shake out, but I think it’s important to recognize that these organizing campaigns have the capacity to serve as a template and a point of inspiration for workers throughout the audio industry who aren’t already engaged in some form of union. I suspect there will be continued uptick of organizing activity among audio workers, as the general awareness about the importance of structured labor power continues to grow in the various media industries and as the full nature of podcasting’s newly participating platforms and corporations come into clearer view.

The push for podcast unions is just one expression of what feels like a larger shift in the relationship between creative labor and the organizations that employ them. Last summer’s discourse over intellectual property, show ownership, and the fair distribution of value in projects is another crucial thread to this story, as it speaks towards important questions about who ultimately benefits as the podcast industry continues to grow in prominence, power, and wealth.

Another expression can be found in the various scandals leading to calls for greater accountability by management structures, and it is here that we can sort the recent story about the New York Times and Caliphate as one instance of a broader trend. (You could also sort that new story about former Conde Nast audio producers in here too.) When an organization is identified to have acted inappropriately, what are the effective avenues for change, internally and externally? How will these matters be adjudicated?

In my view, these questions about shifts in the relationship between the creative worker and the organization actually run downstream from a whole other set of questions that’s worth unpacking: what is the optimal distribution of value between the worker and the organization? Which is to say, for the worker, how should they perceive their options, and what are the trade-offs between aligning with a larger organization versus going alone? And for the organization, what are the best ways to provide equitable arrangements for workers while maintaining competitiveness in the broader marketplace?

How will the audio community open back up post-COVID?

I hesitated to write this one up because, listen, who knows if the COVID-19 vaccination rollout will work out according to current estimated timelines. That said, there will be a day — maybe in this calendar year, possibly, hopefully — when American and the world at large returns to a state where folks can safely walk back into buildings en masse, where passengers can again be packed onto planes with uncomfortable density, where conferences and lanyards and awkward mixers will return to the fabric of professional lives, and where we can grab a drink at a bar and bitch about other people under epidemiologically safe conditions once again.

And when that time comes, there will be intriguing questions to ask about the workplace. One thing I’m interested in tracking the experience of organizations gradually opening their offices back up when it’s clear to do so again… and what adjustments will be made in terms of what “operating at full capacity” is supposed to look like. The experience of going remote during the pandemic has produced a number of prominent learnings for podcast publishers across the community. Turns out, you can indeed manage a largely distributed production infrastructure. You could lean harder into that remote composition and hire producers who don’t live in the same state as you do, effectively increasing the pool for the roles you can hire for.

There will likely be a range of unexpected consequences based on whatever social distancing-era learnings organizations may internalize over the long-term, and I’m curious to see what those will be — whether it has to do with day-to-day experiences, personnel management, product outcomes, and so on. Alternatively, I’m equally interested in seeing whether things are going to whip back hard into place in the aftermath of the pandemic. It’s not too much a stretch to imagine that at least some people place newfound value in the old ways of working, having been deprived of it throughout the pandemic. (I, for one, miss the hum of other people working in my general vicinity, even as I generally dislike being around other people.)

Other logistical questions related to post-pandemic transitions abound. Will the tape sync economy — a valuable source of money for freelancers — pick back up? How will in-studio interviews and recordings be restructured? How many people do you really need in the studio at once, anyway?

There are also stories about broader post-pandemic business realities to consider. While some podcast companies, typically the larger ones, were able to weather the economic disruptions of the pandemic with some level of stability, others were not so capable. Some shows lost crucial revenue streams when live events went away, and for many of those outfits, adapting towards virtual events weren’t as effective. (This isn’t universally true, of course. I’ve been told of a few podcasts that really figured out virtual events, and they might perhaps implement them as a staple tool in the arsenal moving forward.) It is said that theaters and live events venues could reopen sometime in the fall, and if that happens, the push to remount live podcast events again will be something I’d love to track. There were also a few podcast companies that built out studio-for-rent operations to supplement their revenue, which were of course sidelined given social distancing requirements. At some point, it will be safe again to open those back up, and I’d be interested to see if demand for those services will rise again.

Again, I’m wincing as I write this section. I’m still not in a place where I can emotionally grok a future in which the world gets back to normal. We may have established that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but the actual journey through the tunnel remains long, dark, winding, and filled with people convinced we’re not stuck in a tunnel in the first place. Also, some of them are fascists.

But we’ll get there someday, at some point.

Misinformation, Content Moderation, and Platform Responsibility.

As is my tendency, and given the general events of the past week, let’s end on a downer.

I have a strong feeling we’re just a few months away from really grappling with the fact that podcasting is fast becoming a prominent vector for misinformation and other types of troubling content. Indeed, I suspect the problem is already pretty bad at this writing; it’s just that we haven’t figured just how bad yet. But the rot is already very much visible. You can easily spot its manifestations right now: if you browse the Apple Podcast charts, you can quickly find a prominent QAnon-affiliated podcast floating around the Top 30 spots.

Podcasting’s capacity as a vector for misinformation is intimately tied to its historical nature as an open ecosystem where the barriers to publishing are low and anybody can theoretically reach an audience. And so it’s only a matter of time when podcasting, as mediated by a range of platforms, will start bumping into questions of content moderation, adequate policy, and the sensitive line between a platform acting on its responsibilities and a platform applying too much power.

These questions will only be made further complicated by the apparent rise of right-wing podcasts, which has established a strong presence in the ecosystem over the past year in particular and which typically brings with them a complicated relationship to truth and misinformation.

Spotify will likely be the biggest flashpoint of these content moderation discussions by virtue of its aggressive push into podcasting, its dive head-first into content commission and curation, and of course, its exclusive relationship with The Joe Rogan Experience, which is the most popular podcast on its platform and its frequent high-profile clashes with controversial speech. I fully expect to be thinking a lot more about its Trust and Safety team, along with everybody else’s, in the year to come.Miscellaneous Threads…

  • Given the fact that a lot of these major participating corporations and platforms (Spotify, Audible, Amazon Music, iHeartMedia, SiriusXM, and so on) also traffic in other media formats (broadcast radio, audiobooks, etc.), what are the odds we’ll see further confusion over what a “podcast” is supposed to be? For what it’s worth, I believe a show is a show is a show is a show, so I’ll be spreading out coverage as such, but I understand these definitions are still important to some people in the community.
  • Will the podcast-to-Hollywood adaptation pipeline pay off for film and television studios, or will the trend cool down? Additional spice: what will be the hit rate for these adaptations actually being good viewing?
  • How will non-US podcast industries be ultimately structured? Will they have their own independent ecosystems, or will they be dependent on investment, financing, and infrastructure from a global platform like Spotify?
  • Will there be new alternative means of project financing and monetization for independent podcast publishers?
  • It’s probably about time to start trying to tabulate the size of all dollars being to sent to support podcasts.
  • Speaking of which, will we see another attempt at a paid podcast platform? Oh wait, there’s already Audible…
  • Who will drive new education and training initiatives for creative audio workers?
  • What kinds of podcast businesses will receive investment moving forward? (Strong feeling there’s not going to be much love for content studios, to be perfectly honest.)
  • Obviously: what’s the Next Big Podcast going to be? Relatedly, what’s the Next Big Podcast Publisher going to be? Also: who is the Next Big Podcast Producer? Hell yeah.