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BuzzFeed cuts its in-house audio team, and what it tells us

An abrupt end to the PodSquad. How to read this, and how to not.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that BuzzFeed is shutting down its in-house audio production team in favor of reallocating those resources into its video operations. The report phrased the layoffs as affecting “only a handful of BuzzFeed employees,” which essentially includes the four-person production team and a few others — including, perhaps most notably, Tracy Clayton, the talented co-host of the wildly popular and deeply influential Another Round podcast that wrapped production at the end of last year.

Despite the cuts, the Journal report noted that the cuts doesn’t necessarily translate to the end of podcasting or audio at BuzzFeed. While the majority of its audio shows will end production — including The News, Reporting To You, and See Something Say Something — at least one will go on. Thirst Aid Kit, for example, confirmed over Twitter that it remains committed to a fifteen-episode season. Furthermore, the company says it still plans to continue producing podcasts; it’s just that those projects will just be outsourced.

“We’ve decided to move to a production model that is more like our TV projects — that is, treating shows as individual projects, with teams brought on as needed,” Shani Hilton, VP of News and Programming, told WSJ. In other words: more money for podcast shops and agencies like Transmitter and Pineapple Street, but also, just about every major podcast publisher that can leverage their expertise and infrastructure into a collaboration.

The cuts comes within a week of the news that Panoply was cutting its own in-house editorial team. That, perhaps unsurprisingly, inspired another round of anxiety, professed skepticism, and spot analyses — commonly known as “takes” — about the podcast industry among observers inside and outside the field. You might have seen me on Twitter yesterday being frustrated with many of them.

But there are important takes to be had, and a development like this is often serve as a good opportunity for analysis of many actual issues and dynamics that do actually grip the industry and community. So I’m going to spend some time discussing a few that I think are important to mull over.

***

The key to reading what happened with BuzzFeed, I think, was best expressed by Flash Forward‘s Rose Eveleth, who wrote over Twitter:

The BuzzFeed “pivot” away from podcasts makes sense when you remember that BuzzFeed lives and dies as a business on detailed analytics. Web content has them. Video has them. Podcasts still don’t. You can know exactly who clicked on a story, how far they got, where their mouse moved, and where they went next. You can get a really clear picture of who’s watching videos and for how long. We still can’t even figure out what counts as a fucking download in podcasting. Combine that with the so called “discovery problem” of podcasting and it makes sense that a company whose main business proposition is selling advertisers very good analytics & creating a place with extremely discoverable content would turn away from the medium.

There’s an old startup bro fortune cookie wisdom that I see float around the internet from time to time that goes: it doesn’t matter whether you have a good product if you can’t figure out how to monetize it. Which is, you know, totally true, but it’s also useful to unpack the notion of “figuring out how to monetize something.” First of all, it’s worth noting that every sales team has its own strategy, approach, and story, and for every new thing that they have to sell, they have to figure out how to situate the sellability of that new thing within the logic of their sales systems, or at least build out accommodations within their sales architecture to handle a product that they’re distinctly unfamiliar with. (In this case, the product is digital audio.)

The latter might take the form of outsourcing the sales process, which brings us the second thing, which is the fact that one should recall that BuzzFeed had hosted their podcasts on Megaphone, and had previously engaged in a direct ad sales relationship with Panoply. Once again, recall that, in addition to getting out of the content game, Panoply also decided to get out of the direct ad sales game, now putting all their chips on their technology and Megaphone Targeted Marketplace Sales business. I imagine the two developments here are related.

And the final thing: to figure out how to monetize something, you kinda need the will to do that. Whether or not BuzzFeed had the will and intentionality to actually take audio, dedicate resources to both making good products and figuring out ways to sell it, and giving it a good runway to run that test is up to you to decide.

Not unrelated, here’s Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of Pineapple Street Media and former head of audio at BuzzFeed, on Twitter:

For every BuzzFeed — that is, a big multi-platform media company that tested an audio wing and later retired due to unrealized returns — there is a New York Times, Slate, and Vox Media that did, indeed, “figure it out.” But there’s a counter-argument that can be deployed here. As Night Vale Presents’ Joseph Fink pointed out to me, there’s a real element of luck when it comes to developing a “hit” or, indeed, building out an audio operation that’s thriving. That is, of course, universally true, and it’s true for the podcast business as it is in the media business writ large as it is with businesses everywhere, be it an app or a shoe store. But what’s particularly strange about the BuzzFeed situation is they did, indeed, have a hit a powerful and influential and deeply loved podcast hit that could easily have been spun out into a platform: Another Round.

***

In the Reliable Sources newsletter by CNN’s Brian Stelter last night — which, by the way, is one of my must-read newsletters — Stelter packaged the BuzzFeed story with this tid-bit: “I keep hearing media execs express doubts about the sustainability of the podcast ecosystem. Numerous media companies are looking at pods and wondering, in essence, where’s the $$$?”

I think this is one of those situations where it really depends on which media execs Stelter is talking to. For what it’s worth, I still hear those doubts from non-podcast-native media companies all the time, especially those that are beginning to contemplate an investment in audio, and I think developments like this one at BuzzFeed tend to have an effect that amplifies strongest views on a subject.

There is, of course, money. Today marks the debut of Serial’s third season, which, as I reported earlier, features an exclusive ZipRecruiter sponsorship that’s quite likely the biggest “podcast sponsorship in audience reach, exclusivity term, or financial commitment.”

(Total non-sequitur here: the Washington Post pubbed a piece this morning on Serial which stated that the second season attracted an average of 10.6 million listeners per episode versus the 17.3 million in the first. I guess there was a sophomore slump, after all!)

***

Another thread I’ve been hearing: that the developments of the past few weeks are at least in some part tied to the more granular analytics that publishers have been getting from Apple Podcasts. I’m not quite sure about the veracity of that interpretation, but I’m somewhat partial to it: in addition to knowing what’s working, you now also know what doesn’t.

Of course, there’s the purist counterargument that this is the very thing that worried a number of folks about more granular podcast analytics: not having the means to the knowledge about whether a podcast works is the thing that frees the medium up to experiment and make interesting, non-cookie cutter, non-data driven and race to the bottom stuff. There’s a certain worldview built into this, I think, that’s based on this process understanding:

  • The lack of granular podcast analytics are what makes podcasting fresh.
  • The lack of granular podcast analytics are what keeps the trickle of money into the industry relatively slow.
  • One can argue, then, with its allowances and how it keeps the money men out, the lack of granular podcast analytics is the very thing that’s keeping podcasting from being capitalistically corrupted.

The flip-side, of course, is that only a certain kind of podcast — and a certain kind of person — can benefit from those specific industry terms.

***

Which brings us, I think, to the actual story at the heart of all this: labor.

From 30,000 feet, the fundamental structure of what’s happening remains the same: people are still listening to podcasts (in larger and larger numbers), there is still a generation of talented people making stuff, podcast advertising revenue is still growing, and much of the business stories we’ve been seeing can largely be sorted into the genre of “companies trying to figure out their place in all of this, some succeeding — for now — and some failing to do so — for now.”

But as I mentioned in Tuesday’s newsletter, all of those company machinations tend to come at the expense of the workers. Again, this happens everywhere and in every business, but it doesn’t make the actual situation any less crummy. If you buy into certain elements of the interpretation, the situation at BuzzFeed (and Panoply, for that matter) is one where a team fully bore the cost of mistakes and perhaps unfair limitations set by the management team — that will probably never pay a price anywhere close for it. And what’s further scary is that this risk arrangement is being institutionalized, where it is the workers that will bear the brunt of the risk — and will experience hard caps on the returns they can enjoy.

Here’s Alex Sujong Laughlin, one of those producers laid off by BuzzFeed:

https://twitter.com/alexlaughs/status/1042566428216451073

***

I’d like to pause and check myself here. One of the things that I’m wary about when writing Hot Pod is sounding like an apologist, or a propagandist, or some sort of pure boosterist. Which is, you know, a little tough, because I started writing Hot Pod, and I continue to write Hot Pod, because I genuinely love being consuming podcasts, and I’m genuinely fascinated by and interested in how this industry, community, and ecosystem is coming together, figuring itself out, and evolving.

But I am also very well aware of the possible trap of rationalizing all developments into oblivion for the purpose of faith: one could believe in the virtue of something so hard that you don’t see anything that compromises it. There is, also, a financial aspect to all of this: my livelihood consists of paid subscriptions to Hot Pod (by fine people like you), a contract where I primarily write about podcasts, and other miscellaneous income streams that are grounded in podcasting. (That said, I also make some money doing some completely random things, but I’m the sort of person who likes doing random paid gigs.)

Which is to say: you could read me, and you could read my work, and if you were an outsider, you could feasibly think and say — “This kid won’t tell me if this is actually vaporware, this kid won’t actually tell me that podcasting is bullshit, because he’s way too invested in it.” And it would be totally understandable for you to think that, and there would be nothing I can do to change your mind.

All I can say, is this: if I think this is bullshit, I’ll tell you if I think it’s bullshit. And I don’t think it’s bullshit. Take it or leave it.