This week, I’m trying something a little different. I’m working to think through and unpack a number of things, including last week’s developments at Audible and Tom Webster’s Growth Manifesto for Podcasting, that I believe speak to each other in interesting ways. The end product is a really long piece — almost 3000 words — and I’ll be frank: I’m not sure it’s completely successful. I don’t have a hard conclusion, but I do have a couple of ideas, insights, and arguments that I’d like to explore and get across. Hopefully, that’s helpful enough for you.
We begin by beginning elsewhere.
Not too long ago, The Ringer, in an emulation of classic magazine form, published one of those massive editorial packages that’s meant to turn heads and paper over conversational lulls for weeks to come: “The 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century.”
Ranking all of television since the turn of the millenium is a ludicrous exercise, of course, for all the reasons that end-of-year “Best Of” lists are ludicrous and arbitrary and subjective and shamefully tethered to the limits of the human individuals composing it. (Sorry for my own contribution to the plague of “Best of” listicles. Also, not sorry at all.)
But The Ringer’s version of exercise also felt utterly refreshing, primarily for the broader enterprise it seemed more interested in carrying out. Aside from actually producing a List and using it to make bold statements — Lost’s “The Constant” swiping the number one spot feels both bizarre… and oh so right — the package was fundamentally about The Process of making the List, which ultimately functioned as a platform to publicly think through what we talk about when we talk about television. Through a series of accompanying posts and podcast episodes, the real delight of the package lay in the meta-discussion that engaged in the search for a common value system that unites a sprawling universe of televisual stuff in the age of Too Much Television: a way to think and talk about the medium that links the sometimes disparate experiences of watching Mad Men, HGTV, and Futurama.
The distinct insight of The List lies in its voracious inclusiveness. It is creatively omnivorous, pitting prestige dramas against talk shows against reality TV against cartoons. It is also structurally omnivorous, pitting linear network television against linear premium cable against various streaming platforms. In mixing different tele-visual cuisines in the same menu, The Ringer’s 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century package underscored two things that feel so obvious as to be easily forgotten: firstly, that all programming providers — from CBS to AMC to PBS to Netflix to Hulu to YouTube Red — compete in the same pool, and secondly, that for audiences, it’s all television, it’s all part of the same conversation.
You can see where I’m going with this.
Earlier this month, SVP of Edison Research and Infinite Dial co-pitchman Tom Webster published a Medium post adapting a keynote he gave at the recent Podcast Movement conference, and as a unit of discourse, it sought to provoke. You should read the 4000~ word piece if you haven’t already, but for those short on time I wrote a quick summary that you can find here. For our purposes today, and at the risk of sanding down the nuances of his argument, I’m going to narrow that summary down even further to just one of several big ideas embedded in the Webster’s post: the fact that exists a lot of people have heard about podcasting but don’t seem to be adequately incentivized to check it out. To Webster, this is a very worrying situation.
This idea is best expressed in this chunk of his post:
The issue isn’t that there are too many — the issue is that there isn’t one. Here’s the simple truth — Just as it was for HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and any other form of new, online media, the on ramp is the show. And while we need to make listening to the show simpler — we also need a SHOW. When people say that “Podcasts just aren’t for them” or that there aren’t topics that they are interested it — maybe we should take them at their word? They need a show — just one show — and we either haven’t led them to it yet, or maybe…just maybe…we haven’t made it yet.
… and this chunk:
There were once was a time when plenty of people didn’t think they had a Netflix app, didn’t know they needed one, and weren’t sure how to watch it without getting discs emailed in those red envelopes. So what did Netflix do? They didn’t spend a bunch of money on a “Got Netflix?” campaign. They spent a lot of money on Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards. What gets people to discover Netflix is curiosity, and what drives curiosity is the show. The killer show.
“The Show” — it’s a great construct. The Show, whose innate draw simplifies, supersedes, or even renders irrelevant the context from which it came. The One Show To Rule Them All. As I noted in last week’s column: technology and gaming enthusiasts can broadly equate this argument with the notion of “killer apps” that move new devices and consoles. In that case, you could boil the sell down to this: you’re going to want this app, and in order to get it you’re going to have to buy into this other, weird, complicated thing. The underlying point remains consistent across those examples: the major barrier to a thing’s adoption is its potential status as a mere curiosity — something you would probably like if only you were the kind of person who likes that kind of stuff. It applies, equally, to podcasting as it does to, say, public radio in its earliest days. (Or even today.)
The solution, as I interpret it from Webster’s post, is to engineer a identity shift away from being a technological curiosity, a niche. And a good chunk of that involves articulating podcasting’s offerings in a way that makes sense within the context of everyday non-podcast literate folks; in part by evoking facsimiles of the things they are already comfortable with — in this case, that facsimile is the product itself, The Show — and in part by aligning the podcast ecosystem’s narrative, as a whole, beneath the banner of one such Show.
There are several possible counter-arguments to deploy here:
- One could argue, say, that the idea of corralling the marketing identity of the podcast ecosystem behind a single Show is somewhat antithetical to the medium’s open publishing ideal and, in any case, it’s maybe insurmountably hard to fold the narrative of a sprawling and decentralized universe of creation under a single banner.
- One could also argue, perhaps, that some reference points cited in Webster’s post aren’t natural sources of blueprints for podcasting. Netflix, for example, could rally its narrative behind House of Cards because the streaming service is a closed and tightly-controlled environment whose identity is managed by a singular decision-making executive entity. No such equivalent of an executive body exists for podcasting… nor would that necessarily be a good idea.
- Finally, one could possibly further argue that there already exists several equivalents of The Show for different kinds of people: This American Life, Serial, Welcome to Night Vale, Pod Save America, WTF with Marc Maron, Bodega Boys, The Bill Simmons Podcast, The Daily, Fresh Air, and so on.
I have time for some of these counter-arguments; others, less so. But none necessarily disputes Webster’s core point: in my reading it, the most important idea he extends is the need for a subtle, but important, shift in emphasis. What should be foregrounded is not the technology, it’s the people. Or more to the point: it’s not the Means of Production, it’s the Product.
That shift in emphasis should open up what we talk about when we talk about podcasting — and, more to the point, the context within which it competes.
It’s been a week since I expanded on NPR’s newscast about the big shakeup at Audible, which saw the audiobook giant eliminate a number of roles within its original programming unit. As a reminder, the role eliminations officially spanned several teams across the unit, but it seemed to have especially struck the team responsible for shorter-form podcast-style programming.
There have been a few updates to that storyline, some of which I’ve already flagged in last Friday’s Insider:
- On Tuesday, shortly after the newsletter went out, an Audible spokesperson confirmed that The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson and Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel had seasons already in production and that they would, indeed, be released over the Audible platform in the fall. This was in response to a question I raised in this week’s column: “What happens to all the podcast-style Audible Original programs that are still ongoing?”
- On Thursday, Broadcast, a British weekly magazine covering the radio industry, published an article with the headline: “Amazon’s Audible Plans Podcast Push.” The piece called Audible “Amazon’s audiobook and podcasting arm,” and noted that Kent DePinto, the Director of Content at Audible UK, has “set out her commissioning strategy for the first time, revealing plans to double down on intimate shows such as Where Should We Begin?, which features recordings of couples undergoing counselling with Belgian therapist Esther Perel.” Later in the article, Ronson’s show was also name-checked. “DePinto highlighted Jon Ronson’s porn-inspired seven-parter The Butterfly Effect as an example of the type of podcast that ‘blends creative thinking with data-driven insights,’” the piece wrote.
So, what do we take from this? What, exactly, has become of Audible’s shorter-form podcast-style original programming? And what on earth is up with this business with the UK team?
I sent an inquiry over to Audible, asking whether the “podcast push” was limited to the United Kingdom. “No, it is not limited to the UK,” a spokesperson replied. “We launched a significant podcast program in Germany in the fall that continues to get a lot of attention. In the US, our content focus for Audible originals includes our theater initiative, narrative storytelling ‘written to the form’ (a la Michael Lewis) in addition to short-form programming… shortly we have a big announcement about our fall theater slate.”
A team phased out, and yet a nomenclature retained. I’ll say it: I’m confused as to how Audible’s executive leadership views the internal composition of its original programming unit, but I suspect there may well be a gap between the language being used in the public and the language being used inside. In any case, that’s slightly besides the point now, as I find myself more stuck on the bigger question: how does this restructure — which all but phases out podcast-style content development from the original programming unit within Audible’s Newark headquarters — change the company’s position in the broader audio universe and its relationship with podcasting?
As I’ve written previously, Audible’s original programming machinations have long been a horizontal concern for the podcast industry. When the company first leaned into podcast-style programming, it did so by making a pointed statement: hiring a former NPR executive, Eric Nuzum, to lead the initiative, which ended up building a show portfolio that seemed designed to directly compete with the entire podcast universe. Audible being a closed circuit and all, we’ll probably never truly know what kind of listening numbers those shows are doing, but for what it’s worth, a few of them — like Where Should We Begin?, The Butterfly Effect, and West Cork — have attained some critical acclaim, in case that’s relevant to your estimation of the portfolio’s overall performance.
Now that Nuzum’s team has been phased out, does Audible cease to be a horizontal concern for podcasting? The answer, of course, is no.
Audible is the monopolistic force in audiobooks, and its competitive landscape has long ceased to be limited to other audiobook providers. Today, the platform is best viewed as being up against a full multiverse of Stuff For Your Ears To Enjoyably Pass The Time and tightly situated in digital audio landscape that pits Audible against terrestrial talk radio against public radio against music in all its distributional forms. It’s all audio, right?
What Podcasting brought to this landscape was the introduction of a theoretically infinite horizon of potential competition. Between its relatively low barriers to entry and the sheer abundance of possible podcasting participants that range from basement-amateurs to fully-matured public radio operations to talented experimentalists, the open publishing medium, in theory, vastly complicates the choice matrix for a listener who may have previously defaulted to Audible, Spotify, or just given up and flicked on radio. But as we’ve just discussed in the previous section, podcasting’s category-level advantage has been largely blunted by problems affiliated with non-streamlined onramps: a lack of what Webster calls “The Show,” plus the pervading cage of being perpetually identified as a curiosity meant for other people. (Not to mention all the other fundamental issues it’s grappling with: ensuring that its advertising economy matures, slowly enforcing a trustworthy system of measurements and metric accountability, keeping the lights on, and so on.)
What Audible brings to the party was the fact that its product is, frankly speaking, a derivative, at least initially. Of course, there’s real skill, art, and taste involved in crafting a great audiobook experience — I ride for Jim Dale’s Harry Potter reads — but it’s worth noting that an audiobook company doesn’t initially participate in the difficult business of figuring out how to source, seed, and develop a line of hits or bankable products from scratch. Instead, it leans on the book publishing industry along with its aggregate marketing efforts to run through that wall first. To put it in absurdly reductive terms, Audible was instead in the business of creating the best technical experience that audiobook consumption can be. This isn’t to belittle the achievement, of course. It’s just a different kind of fight, and it also happens to be one that naturally gives the company an orthogonal advantage to everyone else in the audio category.
Perhaps it was always going to be the case that Audible would expand vertically into original audio programming. When the world is fully conquered, where else does one look but to the stars? The question, of course, is how it would do that, and through what advantage?
The company’s gambit with Nuzum and the Direct Podcasting Parallel was always interesting to me for the way it opened up what we could talk about when we talk about Audible. Being an audiobook company inherently pegs your outer limits to the outer limits of the book publishing industry: its talent pool, its infrastructure, its consumer cultures. But by building inroads into the horizontally-located culture of narrative radio, by hiring a person from that world who then brings in creative people just like him into the mix, Audible potentially opened itself up to a whole new set of outer limits. What if Audible wasn’t just the dominant force in audiobooks, but also the dominant force in narrative radio? What if Amazon didn’t just sell books, but also toiletries?
That particular version of the future has been dimmed out, at least for now, given the phasing out of Nuzum’s team and the exporting of their responsibilities to the UK branch. But it seems that Audible has a new tip of the spear as far as its original programming strategy is concerned: doubling down on its long-cultivated book publishing relationships to strike audiobook-only exclusives with known authors, embodied by Michael Lewis’ The Coming Storm and the recently announced audiobook-only Harry Potter project narrated by the actress Natalie Dormer. Again, as in previous weeks, I refer you to this New York Times write-up as a primer on the new strategy, though I would like to additionally highlight this eyebrow-raising line: “[Michael Lewis’] audio originals may be adapted and expanded into print, but Audible will have exclusive rights for several months.”
That business with the rights… it’s eyebrow-raising stuff, I think. For what it’s worth, I really liked The Coming Storm, but as I mentioned in a review for Vulture, I didn’t quite see why it had be an audiobook-only project. There was no interview tape, no archival material, no deployment of music diegetic to the experience that actually used the medium or warrant its immediate lack of a print version. At the end of the day, it felt like a strategy premised on artificial scarcity. (Personally, I find all the theater stuff… a lot more interesting.)
Will that lack of medium-utilization matter to Audible? It depends. Will it matter to current and potential Audible customers, who continue to be flooded with an increasing horizon of audio alternatives? (It’s all audio, it’s all part of the same conversation.) We shall see, but for now, despite the audiobook giant’s reshuffling of its outer limits, it remains in an advantageous position. As podcasting looks for The Show, as broadcast radio squeezes cents out all the reach it has, as the music industry reorganizes its power structure, Audible marches on.