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A talent agent on the pandemic and the Hollywood-industrial complex

It should be clear by now that talent agents play an increasingly crucial role in the formation of the podcast business: They create markets for projects and creators, serve as rapid facilitators of information in the industry, and are generally incentivized to amp up the level of competition in the ecosystem, which may be a good or bad thing depending on which side of the deal you’re on. I typically enjoy checking in with agents, largely because we’re basically talking about a group of people whose entire job requires closely reading the whole field. And as the country gradually inches towards the other side of the pandemic — and some sort of return to whatever one might consider “normal” — I figured this was probably as good a time as any to take stock of the year that came before and the year that lies before us through the eyes of the podcast talent agent.

Caroline Edwards was appointed the Director of Podcast Initiatives at ICM Partners two years ago, after working in the agency’s political department for a number of years. (When asked if she missed politics, she replied: “Definitely, especially this last year. It was, uh, a big one.”) The turn towards the nascent but growing podcast deals space marked a kind of return for Edwards: She had worked in television development for years before her stint in political consulting, and in early 2019, she found herself interested in getting back into the storytelling business. When she asked her bosses for a change in scenery, the agency was in the midst of planning out podcast department, and they asked if she was interested to lead it. She took the position, and as you can imagine, she’s been pretty busy with the job ever since.

I caught up with Edwards over the phone earlier this month, taking the opportunity to get a sense of what the industry looks like now from her vantage point, how her work has shifted over the course of the pandemic, and what areas she’s interested in focusing more on moving forward.

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Hot Pod: How has the past year affected your workload?

Caroline Edwards: It’s been interesting. Obviously, when the pandemic hit, there was some amount of anxiety, but as things progressed, my work just skyrocketed. I was busier this past year than I’ve ever been in the podcast space.

I think that happened for a few reasons. First of all, I work in a traditional agency that services clients in television, film, news, and sports, among many other things, so everyone who was previously unavailable now had more time, and they started looking into podcasting because it was the one entertainment space that continued forward, basically without a hitch.

There was also just more demand for content. Sure, there was some dip with listening at the outset, but things eventually leveled out. People eventually figured new schedules and new listening times, perhaps when they’re walking around the neighborhood or when they’re cooking every night. When people listened changed, but the amount people listened to didn’t, and if anything, it seemed to have increased at the end of the day. So it became apparent that this was a space where people could still make money.

HP: So, the volume of listening and interest might have gone up, but have the nature of the opportunities changed over the past year? Did you find yourself packaging different kinds of projects than before?

Edwards: Totally. We saw some changes in how people want to spend their listening time. One of the biggest shifts I saw was a big dip in true crime content, which, I mean, makes sense. We couldn’t sell anything with true crime for a while, and I had to table all of those projects. But what’s interesting now, a year later, is that non-violent true crime has come back a little bit.

HP: So, scams and cons, things like that?

Edwards: Yeah. Non-violent, true crime investigative stories, basically. One example is a deal I did last year for the Maria Butina Spy Affair project with Wondery that came out this month. I’ve sold two other ones that should be announced in the next couple of weeks. People seem to still be interested in intriguing investigative stuff, but they’re a little less enthusiastic about violence.

Another genre that’s been interesting is self-help, which has been really popular. How do I be a good spouse or parent? How do I deal with all the anxiety over what’s going on in the pandemic? I did a deal last year for Sarah Knight around her No Fucks Given podcast that came out at the start of this year, and it was all about how to reassess your priorities and how to take care of yourself. That show blew up, it’s been charting pretty well, and the numbers have been growing steadily. So I’ve found myself getting more requests for that kind of thing.

There’s also been a greater look towards comedy, which is an area I’ve always been excited about. Personally, I’ve been thinking about how to figure out the half-hour scripted comedy format — something like Will & Grace or How I Met Your Mother, but for podcasts. I think that’s going to be really successful one day. Anyway, in addition to nonviolent true crime and self-help, I’ve also been getting a lot of requests for comedy projects.

HP: I imagine a lot of your work comes from clients in other media, but to what extent have you been doing more work with clients native to podcasting?

Edwards: It’s certainly become more robust. They’ve mostly come through referral, which is really nice. I tend to take on clients who might’ve grown a certain amount but feel like they haven’t gotten the attention they need where they are, and maybe they need some help. Working with people who are native to podcasting has been great because they fully understand the space. They know it’s a full-time job. Gone are the days where the podcast was just a side hustle.

For the most part, the issue has been marketing, but sometimes I have a podcast that’s gotten big enough that they can’t keep up with the amount of work and just need some support. In that instance, the work is to help find them a place where they can get that.

And of course, I also work with podcast production companies. I service their whole fleet of shows and help them build relationships, whether it’s work for hire or original work. That’s the nice thing about being in a full-service agency: If there’s a show that could be a book, I could bring them over to the book department. If it could be a television project, we have a TV department, and so on. The idea is to help create all these small businesses around the same creator. That’s the goal.

HP: My sense is that because there’s been more energy and interest around podcasting — and this has been true for a while now, but it seems especially the case over the pandemic — there’s also been increased hype and expectation, which may not be super helpful or productive. When you work with someone for the first time, how do you set expectations?

Edwards: It’s always a long conversation, and of course, it’s important to be honest. The reality is, podcasting is still the Wild West in many ways, right? It’s growing very fast, and it’s also changing very fast: Something that applies today may not apply tomorrow.

All I can really say is, “Okay, here are some examples of what’s happened and how those things typically look like,” and emphasize that the marketplace only bears what it does for certain people. I’d tell them that I’d take their project, bring it out to the market, have a bunch of conversations, and see what happens. Sometimes it’s luck, sometimes what’s going on in the world changes, and sometimes nothing happens.

It’s not unlike the same pathway as doing a television show, right? The likelihood you’re going to write a script, have that script be purchased, and then have that project actually go into production — it’s a long road.

With any of this, it’s important to have the right people on your team to support you, and it’s also important to make sure you’re getting honest feedback, that you’re communicating. It’s not easy, and it’s a very saturated market.

HP: Speaking of communicating, what do you typically find as your biggest challenges as an agent in the podcast business?

Edwards: Well, simply the fact that a lot of people don’t know what agents do. There’s an education curve where I have to explain what my job is, how it operates, how much it costs. There’s more of an innate understanding among people in the television, film, and theater business, but because podcasting and the people within it are relatively new to this stuff, that’s been a bit of a hurdle.

One thing I’ve found that’s been pretty interesting is that there’s also some distrust of agents in this community. I’ve had some introductions where people are like, “Oh, I don’t know about this.” A lot of it, I think, is about understanding that it’s a relationship. Not all agents are for everyone. It’s a very personal thing, having someone help grow your business.

HP: Where would you say that distrust comes from?

Edwards: I think a couple of places. A lot of podcasters started out on their own, so they’re scrappy and have hustled by themselves for so long. So there’s this feeling of like, “I’m going to have to give up something?” That’s probably pretty scary, and by the way, I completely understand that.

Then there’s also… I’m sure you’ve seen Entourage. Agents have a reputation of being hustlers, which can be a good thing, can be a bad thing. Podcasting hasn’t become completely Hollywoodized yet, so I think people are very wary of the stereotype of the Hollywood agent.

HP: Finally, what do you think you’re going to focus on over the next year?

Edwards: One thing I’m planning to focus on this year — and probably for the next couple more years — is the kids genre. I’m really about the kids space, and I’ve been seeing more big buyers jumping in and asking me who they should be meeting with. It’s an incredible opportunity for education, for stuff that can help kids expand their minds and be entertained without staring at a screen. My sense is that there’s going to be some pushback on technology when it comes to kids, so a more traditional storytelling type of entertainment could see a chance for a surge.

Another focus I have is on the international marketplace. It’s still a blip compared to what’s happening in the U.S. at the moment, but it’s not always going to be that way. I’m certain we’ll see it grow. ICM is now partnered with this agency in Sweden called Albatros, and I’m working with colleagues over there to talk about some cross-international opportunities, doing projects in the native language of certain regions. I think Spanish-speaking countries could get really interesting, too. The international front is probably going to happen sooner than some people might think.

And finally, I’m still very interested in scripted comedy stuff, which I mentioned earlier. I just think it’s such a huge opportunity, and whoever figures it out is going to be very successful.

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Edwards is the Director of Podcast Initiatives at ICM Partners.