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A New Subscription Podcast Service Looms

At some point this winter, we will see the launch of something called Quake Media, which describes itself as a “subscription podcast network” that’s focused on creating programming around “household names developing unique and exclusive content for their highly-engaged audiences.”

The company, it seems, is well aware of the nomenclatural complication. “We believe using the word ‘podcast’ is the easiest way to communicate to a broader audience what the content essentially is,” Michael Morrell, Quake Media’s president, tells me. “For most people, we think the term ‘podcast’ connotes ‘on-demand mobile-first audio,’ but if anyone would rather call content like ours something different, we certainly respect that.”

When we traded emails last week, Morrell outlined the details of the fully closed platform: when the service rolls out, it will cost $6.99 per month — a dollar less than Luminary — and will only feature programming that’s exclusive to the platform. There will be no free tier whatsoever, and the team is poised to engage in the difficult work of marketing tunnel conversion via free trials, referral programs, stuff like that.

So, what exclusive shows can we expect from Quake Media? Morrell tells me that the focus will mostly be on talk and conversational-style programming built around “household names,” many of whom have never crossed into podcasting before, and the goal is to hit both audiences that have never really bought into podcasts before — but may be drawn into the ecosystem by the allure of said “household names” — as well as deep podcast listeners that are looking for more shiny stuff to add to their listening rotations.

To state the gobsmackingly obvious: this thing is going to live or die based on who, exactly, these crossover talents will turn out to be, and whether sufficient power can be extracted from their exclusivity with the Quake Media platform. And here’s the catch with this story: I’m told that the company isn’t quite ready to disclose specific names just yet.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. There’s a whole “we have this shiny box, we’re gonna put really cool stuff in it, promise” quality to the company’s pitch in its current form. Which, you know, is the kind of story I’d typically punt down the line until I get actual names… if I wasn’t intrigued by some details around the ensemble that’s formed behind the operation.

Based in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood, Quake Media was founded by Doug Rosenberg, a former political fundraiser who is said to have a remarkably deep rolodex. (“His vast network of connections, particularly in politics and sports, is definitely one of our competitive advantages,” said Morrell.) Rosenberg’s previous work in media includes creating the Alfonso Aguilar Show, a nationally-syndicated conservative political talk-radio show that was picked up by Univision in 2012, and more pertinent to our interests, launching three sports podcasts that have popped up and around the Sports section of the Apple Podcast charts: Tobacco Road, Meat Locker, and The Mike & Merrill Show.

Rosenberg has been quietly piecing the company together for a while now, assembling a group of investors that includes the Jeffrey Katzenberg co-founded WndrCo and an advisory board that includes longtime CBS Radio executive Chris Oliviero, who recently left the radio network operator shortly after its merger with Entercom. (Entercom, of course, is additionally relevant in this newsletter as the major stakeholder in Cadence13.) Last year, the company brought on Morrell, a media veteran who spent a decade producing ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption before working the last four years at Bleacher Report building its video and a podcast teams.

Looking at the personnel spread, the focus on personality-driven talk and conversational programming, and the commitment to the paid subscription model, it occurs to me that the big idea governing Quake Media may be a gambit to explicitly adapt SiriusXM to the on-demand audio environment… before SiriusXM can do it themselves. The talk radio rooting is further reflected in the initial four verticals that will make up the service’s launch offerings: Politics, Religion, Sports, and True Crime. (Morrell signalled that there is some expectation to add more verticals over time, though there’s no predefined timeline around those just yet.)

Again, I’m intrigued. And again, this thing is going to live or die on the strength of those names that’s going to be on the surface. But I also think another thing to watch, whenever Quake Media rolls out, is whether talk and conversational-style podcast programming is better served by a subscription platform or the open ecosystem.

Consider the fact that podcasting has, in many ways, already adapted talk radio-style programming into its own terms. Think Bill Simmons, Joe Rogan, Joe Budden, Jemele Hill, the late Reggie Osse and the greater Loud Speakers Network universe, even Marc Maron. The podcast advertising monetization model, as we currently know it, is best served by that type of content, because those podcasts publish more consistently, generate higher volumes of inventory, and more effectively taps into the strength of the host-read ad. Better still: it’s free for the consumer, which means that those podcasts have greater capacity to spread, be shared, and deliver cultural impact.

One of my (many, many) theories on podcasts and the paid subscription model is that the core opportunity still to be realized is a way to use the latter to help certain kinds of podcasts that haven’t been well-served by the advertising business. In my mind, this is stuff like limited-run serieses, fiction podcasts, content that advertisers would be wary of buying into, and so on.

Then again, SiriusXM is a very successful company that built a subscription model and created efficiencies over a freely-distributed system that was, in its own ways, already working. We’ll see. I’ll be keeping a close eye on Quake Media, and where they will take us.