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Analysis: Vox Media to buy Cafe Studios, publisher of Preet Bharara’s podcast

Ben Mullin over at the Wall Street Journal had the scoop on Sunday evening — who scoops on Sunday evenings! C’mon! — and according to his report, Bharara will join Vox Media as a host, co-founder, and creative director of Cafe, which will be retained as a brand.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed, and Bharara will now report to Marty Moe, the president of Vox Media Studios, which houses the Vox Media Podcast Network along with its various film and television activities. Bharara told the Journal that the decision to sell was in part due to the fact it was “a quicker alternative to fundraising and would create bigger opportunities.” He also noted that they hope to explore future possibilities around scripted programming, documentaries, and live events.

Let’s pause for a sec. This is the point where I should hit the customary: In case you don’t know, I’m a contributor to Vulture, the entertainment vertical of New York Magazine, which Vox Media acquired (or merged with, depending on who’s telling the story) in September 2019. I write criticism, curate a recommendations newsletter, and pull together the occasional story or interview for Vulture, which also syndicates Hot Pod (in fact, you might be reading this column on the site). But I’m very much an independent operator, and in any case, the income I make from Vulture doesn’t make up a huge part of Hot Pod Media’s revenue. I make these disclaimers for three reasons: First, because I guess it’s good form to do so; second, to set up the fact I didn’t see this one coming, though I’m not surprised to see it; and finally, to emphasize just how The Blob/Katamari Damacy-like the contemporary digital media universe tends to be these days — which, coincidentally, is further expressed by this Cafe acquisition story.

You might remember I wrote a column on Cafe Studios fairly recently, as in early February, on the occasion of the company dipping its toe in the narrative format for the first time with Doing Justice. A few pertinent data points from that write-up: Cafe, which spun off from Some Spider Studios sometime last year, specializes in what I’ll call “newsy podcasts hosted by political and legal figures”; its biggest show, Stay Tuned with Preet, averages two million downloads per month and is primarily monetized through advertising; and the company meaningfully diversified out to include a membership business that’s priced at $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year and is said to have “tens of thousands” of paid members.

In an email sent to Vox Media staffers (which, by the way, I did not receive because I’m not on staff but had procured through other means), CEO Jim Bankoff wrote that the company “will invest in growing the Cafe Insider membership program and will explore additional membership opportunities across the Vox Media Podcast Network.” This is interesting, of course, because the state of direct revenue (whether subscription or membership, which are two different models) across Vox Media is somewhat patchworked at the moment. New York Magazine, being originally a print magazine business, has a robust subscription engine, while the broader Vox Media brand has only tentatively experimented with a membership program, at first pursuing a YouTube-led strategy and nowadays organized around a more “donate to support” approach. The emphasis on a membership for the Vox Media’s podcast network in particular, which has mostly been structured around a scale-driven ad business, doesn’t have much precedent within the history of that division.

Two more things: Firstly, Bankoff’s email also notes that Cafe’s entire staff of around thirteen employees will be joining the Vox Media staff, though I’m told that a few executives who straddled operations between Cafe and Some Spider Studios — including Chief Business Officer Geoff Isenman and Some Spider Studios CEO Vinit Bharara, who is also Preet Bharara’s brother — will not be joining Vox Media. Secondly, I’m also told that the Vox Media Podcast Network will be taking over ad sales for Cafe shows in the coming weeks.

For what it’s worth, this move reminds me a lot of Vox Media’s acquisition of Recode in 2015. Not in scale, necessarily: Cafe’s finances are not publicly known beyond guesstimations, as Recode was said to be generating $12 million in revenue at the time of its sale, according to Insider. Rather, I mean more in style: Like Recode, Cafe is a creative-editorial media company led by a very public brand-defining figure, in this case Preet Bharara. Its coverage area, within the overlap of legal and political analysis, presumably also fits well next to proper.

The absorption of Bharara and co. comes at an interesting time for the Vox Media Podcast Network, which saw three of its bigger personalities — Ezra Klein, Kara Swisher, and Jane Coaston — depart for the New York Times Opinion section over the past year, where they now anchor prominent podcasts for the division. (Though Swisher continues to do additional podcast work for Vox Media through Pivot, which she hosts with Scott Galloway, who, by the way, also hosts another podcast of his own, The Prof G Show, which was just brought into the Vox Media Podcast Network from Westwood One. Boy, isn’t this confusing? Isn’t this just a big bowl of spaghetti? Are we all going to work for the same three companies at the same time in the future? Will all the newsletters in the universe be rolled up into AT&T?)

Anyway, the point is: I think the addition of Bharara fills in a really interesting personality-shaped hole in the Vox Media Podcast Network, and if I were them, I’d keep him far away from anybody in any way connected to the New York Times Opinion Audio team.