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Audiobooks are not exempt

There’s no news peg to this piece, other than the fact it’s based off a keynote I gave earlier this month at the Audiobook Publishers Association Conference in New York. I took the keynote invite as an opportunity to revisit the subject of audiobooks — from which I had shifted my attention away since last summer’s shake-up of the Audible Originals team, though maybe I shouldn’t have — and think through its current relationship with the podcast world, whatever that may be. This piece isn’t quite that keynote, because a bunch of the ideas contained within has been revised, so if you were there, the Javits Center, sorry, it’s all different now.

The question I wanted to probe: how will the ongoing formation of the podcast industry affect the digital audiobook industry?

One could possibly argue that perhaps there wasn’t really much of an effect at all; that the industries are separate, parallel, and mostly unintrusive of each other. The audiobook industry has been booming for a while now, with the digital audiobook market experiencing double-digit annual growth over the past decade. And that growth trajectory appears to track alongside a similar arc for podcasting across the same period.

Sure, audiobooks remains a modest revenue segment of overall book publishing business compared to print and ebooks. A recent Association of American Publishers (AAP) report, cited by Publishers Perspectives, noted that “downloaded audio” makes up 10.5% of book sales through online retail channel, while the print format is pegged at 43.2% and ebooks at 27%. But the more pertinent point is that digital audiobooks are rapidly growing as a segment compared to other book formats, some of which are even in decline. According to another AAP report, digital audiobooks, recorded as “digital downloads,” grew by a whopping 36.4% between the first halves of 2017 and 2018. In contrast, hardback and paperback revenues grew by 7.2% and +2.6% respectively, while ebooks, as stated in the same report, shrank by 5%. (Notably, physical audiobook revenues declined by 19.9%, which makes sense, because CDs. On a separate note, do book publishers release audiobooks as vinyl?)

There is a similarity that can be drawn between the narratives of audiobooks and podcasts. Both are small but rapidly growing segments of their respective home ecosystems — book publishing in the case of audiobooks, radio in the case of podcasts — at a time when many other segments of those industries appear to be flattening out. There are key differences worth noting, of course, most crucially the fact that digital audiobooks largely grew over the past decade under the auspices of a particularly active dominant platform, Audible, while podcasting largely grew during the same period under the ward of a relatively benign dominant platform, Apple.

If anything, the relationship between audiobooks and podcasts is probably a mutually beneficial one. In the most recent Infinite Dial report, Edison Research observed that “along with the increases in podcast listening, audiobook consumption has also increased, indicating a trend towards increased spoken word audio consumption.” That observation comes from the finding that both audiobook listening and podcast listening had experienced similar growths between 2018 and 2019.

Here are the relevant slides:

There’s a straightforward interpretation that can be made here: podcasts are helping more people develop an affinity for spoken audio content, prompting those humans to consequentially turn to other forms of spoken audio content, like audiobooks, to satiate that newfound hunger. The same probably goes for the other direction, from audiobooks to podcasts. And so here we are presented with an optimistic view of the future: it’s all audio, it’s all on-demand digital audio, and it’s all boats being lifted by the same rising tide.

That may well be true, but only if the structural conditions of the competitive landscape — namely, how the mediums relate to each other in terms of how they think about audiences, suppliers, and distribution chain — remains the same. But, I mean, come on. What are the odds are that being the case?

To frame the predicament in the form of a question: will these different digital audio worlds continue to exist separate, parallel, and mostly unintrusive of each other? Or will they, over the medium to long term, end up colliding in direct competition?

This is probably a good time to bring up the platforms, a fundamental arbiters and gatekeepers of our modern media universe. Audible, of course, which is already said to account for about 41% of U.S. audiobook unit sales per the Wall Street Journal, but also Spotify, which might seem like a non-sequitur, but really isn’t.

Here’s why I’m grouping the two companies together here: in case you’ve somehow forgotten, since February, Spotify has spent several hundred million dollars acquiring three podcast companies in accordance to its new grand ambition to become an all-consuming audio platform. Podcasting is the headlining subject in this corporate narrative thrust, but as a matter of Spotify’s overarching ambitions, it’s only part of the equation.

In a Freakonomic Radio interview last month, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek popped up to talk about the company and its origin myth, and at one point, he spoke about the various experiences that led the company down the “diversifying away from music” path. Ek offered up a telling anecdote:

We started seeing, in my home country Sweden actually, record companies buying podcasts and uploading them to the platform as another revenue opportunity for them to grow. And it resonated really well with listeners. And that was like the first step.

And then in Germany, record companies there had massive amounts of rights to audio books, which I wasn’t aware of. And they started uploading that to the service and very, very quickly, we went from like no listening to that and now we’re probably if not the biggest, the second-biggest audiobook service in Germany. And this is without our involvement. You know, this just happened by proxy of us being a platform. So we started seeing it resonating really well into people’s lives. And they thought of Spotify not just as a music service but as a service where they can find audio. And it played really well into our strategy of ubiquity — i.e., being on all of these different devices in your home, whether it’s the Alexas or TV screens or in your cars or whatever as just another source where you could play your audio.

Two things to pull from this. Firstly, if I were a betting man, I’d sprinkle some action on the notion that there will come a time, not too far into the future, when Spotify might begin looking into the possibility of securing audiobook distribution rights here in the United States. After all, the audiobook category falls directly into Spotify’s underlying interests in becoming a ubiquitous, all-consuming audio platform, which would involve expanding into other on-demand audio markets — audiobooks included. Sure, the cost of acquiring audiobook rights would be more expensive than the costs of collecting podcast assets (for now, anyway, on both sides of the equation), and Spotify would move to figure out moving audiobooks beyond unit sales economics towards streaming economics. But I wouldn’t discount just how appealing a true second option might be for audiobook publishers operating in the age of Audible… and certainly when Audible is looking to bypass publishers in all sorts of ways.

Audiobook publishers would need to weigh out the balance, though, and that brings me to the second takeaway, which is somewhat waftier. Should Spotify’s diversification gambit work out, the shift could well produce a digital audio environment where many different forms of digital audio content — podcasts, music, maybe even audiobooks — will become more blended together than ever before, which will bring significant ramifications for both audiences and publishers.

In the minds of consumers, this blending may translate to the flattening of various digital audio experiences. By virtue of the way most people navigate media choices over platforms these days, there is a possible future in which digital audio consumers, or at least primary Spotify users, won’t end up being particularly concerned if something is an “audiobook” or a “podcast” or an “audio file with sounds of people doing stuff.” When they pull up the Spotify app to fill up their time, it’s just a wall of mildly differentiated audio content, not unlike the wall that hits you when you pull up Netflix on your Roku or whatever. (The underlying principle here being: the bucket matters as much, if not more, than what’s stored in it.)

How would that flattening impact the life of the audiobook publisher? I reckon audiobook publishers would then find themselves up against the same tenor of competition that magazines and newspapers face these days in the age of Facebook, Google, and whatever’s left of the blogosphere. In the past, audiobooks and podcasts may have indirectly competed with each other as separate and distinct media universes, but the fundamental check and balance there was that each had their own distinct consumer systems. There were structural, habituating things ensuring that it is a specific kind of experience to consume podcasts, just as it is a specific kind of experience to consume audiobooks. However, should Spotify 2.0 successfully mix those two worlds within the same platform, the terms of those specificities no longer hold, In that future, audiobooks participate in a significantly broader horizon of competition, but within a much narrower context.

It should be noted that Audible is also in the middle of a similar kind of mixing. Longtime readers will remember a time not too long ago when Audible’s Originals strategy, then led by NPR vet Eric Nuzum, could reasonably be discussed within the same conversation as podcasting. That originals strategy has since changed, following an executive shuffle in late 2017 and a subsequent team restructure/layoffs in the summer of 2018. And while it seemed like the change was a double-down on the company’s master of the book publishing-oriented supply chain, Audible’s various efforts over the past year suggest something else. Something broader.

There is, of course, all the direct deals the platform has been signing with authors to create audiobook-only products or audiobook-first publishing scenarios. But then you have its growing relationships with content companies — like its deal with Broadway Video to produce long-form scripted comedy originals, including a project by SNL’s Kate McKinnon, as well its deal with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine to make “audio content that’s longer than podcasts, but shorter than audio books,” per TechCrunch. Also worth tracking: its deepening pipeline into the theater world, now a couple of years old.

There was a time when it was appropriate to think of Audible as an “audio book publishing” platform and of Spotify as an “on-demand audio everything else” platform. But with all these pieces in front of us, perhaps that assessment was never quite correct. As we move forward in time, it increasingly feels like Audible and Spotify are growing more connected to each other as part of the same ecosystem — which means that audiobooks, as with all other forms of audio media, are not exempt from what’s been going on.

In Ireland, A Collective Plays The Waiting Game

The place where I live in the north west of England often feels closer to Ireland than it does to London. My city, Liverpool, has lots of historic, cultural, and family tries that visibly cuts across the Irish Sea. Indeed, it constantly surprises me sometimes with just how connected the two places are. For instance: a few months ago, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ, aired an excerpt of a podcast I had produced. At a gathering later that week, half a dozen people came up to me to say “I heard you on the radio!” in a way I’ve never experienced with a British transmission.

Irish podcasts have also long been a fixture in my regular listening rotation, and many of the shows I enjoy come from the same podcast collective, which was founded in Dublin in 2014: Headstuff. Five years in, the organization, which originally started out as a culture website, is now expanding into new premises and developing a membership scheme that includes access to their studio space and editors. At the moment, they have two full-time employees, a full-time intern on a short contract, and three freelancers, and hope to grow the employee headcount in the near future.

Although Ireland’s population is small — just under five million people live in the country compared to the UK’s 66 million — a Reuters report from 2018 put the proportion of people who had accessed a podcast in the last month at 38 percent, way ahead of the UK’s 18 percent. Given this, I was intrigued by Headstuff’s new adventures, and reached out to founder Alan Bennett to find out more.

Their business model has always relied partly on the editorial shows that Headstuff supports, such as the popular comedy podcast Dubland and the Irish language show Motherfoclóir, partly on branded projects, and partly on studio hire and production support. When I spoke to Bennett last month, he told me that Headstuff’s podcast portfolio currently numbers around 50 shows, that they collectively attract around 200,000 listeners a month.

Now, Bennett said, they’ve taken over and refurbished the former Westland Studios building in central Dublin, a large music recording studio that has hosted artists like U2 and Bob Dylan. Headstuff has turned its one large space into four studios, including one for video and one aimed at solo or voiceover work.

The idea is partly to accommodate all their current clients who want more studio time, but it’s a slightly driven by a “if we build it, they will come” sensibility, he said. In addition to the corporate clients they work with, the space is meant to also be accessible to hobbyists and amateurs, who as members can buy an allowance of credits to spend on studio time or editing support for an annual subscription of around €600 (approximately $675). “There’ll be a members’ area with a little cafe, where they can come and work and have free tea and coffee, meet guests, work on their podcasts and generally enjoy the space,” Bennett added.

This move into brick and mortar represents a big shift from Headstuff’s origins as a culture site, publishing essays and reviews. When the site launched its flagship podcast, “it grew in a way that I wasn’t quite expecting,” which gave Bennett the idea of inviting other shows in and forming the collective. Initially, the podcasts that Headstuff hosted and supported worked together just on a cross promotional basis, but now some have sponsors, crowdfunding campaigns and live performance operations as well. Bennett also has ambitions to add an in-house sales team at some point in the future.

“Some of our podcasts have been more successful than others at getting sponsors. . . We haven’t consistently had sponsors. I feel like the Irish advertising market hasn’t quite caught up to podcasting yet and there is nobody really putting a lot into it for an extended period of time. So it’s a bit hit-and-miss at the moment but I think it will get there at some point,” he said.

To date, they’ve done deals with beverage companies like Kopparberg as well as major beauty brands, and Bennett feels that Headstuff is well positioned in the Irish market for when bigger, more confident advertisers do show up. In the meantime, Patreon, studio hire fees, and the membership scheme help to fill in the gaps. “We’re still playing waiting game a little bit, but I’m also trying to force the issue — we’re trying to educate people,” he said.

The long-term goal, beyond make a success of their new space, is to be able to work on bigger, more ambitious productions. The vast majority of the podcasts that Headstuff currently puts out are conversational or semi-scripted, and Bennett has plans to make “for want of a better word, the Irish Serial.”

He added: “To be able to put a lot of resources into it into a show and be able to work on it for months before it comes out, and make journalistic shows or investigative shows or even very highly produced narrative shows — we want to do that.”

They actually have an investigative project already well under way, but the lack of resources has meant progress is slow. “It’s taken so long and we don’t have the resources to move it along quicker,” Bennett said. “We’ve been close to being able to be finished with it for such a long time that, you know, at a certain point it becomes frustrating as opposed to exciting.” The hope is that the new space and revenue stream from it will help to speed things up.

Bennett is optimistic about future growth in Irish podcasting, though, and Headstuff’s role in it as more people get involved. “I think that the appetite is there. Irish people, as the stereotype goes, are a nation of storytellers. And they always like to talk and I think podcasting gives people the ability and the flexibility to do that on a slightly bigger scale.” He hopes that the new Headstuff space, to be known as “‘The Podcast Studios”, will make starting a high-quality show more accessible and affordable for newcomers to the medium, and help existing podcasters level up.

Until the big advertisers and audiences show up, Bennett and Headstuff will be waiting. “If we just continue to make really good shows and make the space a place where people really want to be, then we can’t go wrong,” he said.

This Week in Spotify

The Spotify beat is buzzing. In the recent weeks, we’ve seen the release of a spinoff app, a new personalized playlist called “Your Daily Drive” that’s meant to reconstruct the morning commute listening experience, the rollout of a library redesign for premium users that emphasizes podcast discovery, and a few exclusive content partnership announcements (see the Obamas, also Rob Riggle).

It’s a whole lot of press releases, and that’s probably the point. We’ll see how the actual business shakes out from these moves, but for now, when you get the opportunity to drive some headlines, you do it, I suppose.

Don’t forget to look around the corners, though. Two things that caught my eye:

(1) Spotted this little development, first written up by The Drum, which is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle: “Spotify now lets advertisers target podcast listeners.”

According to the write-up, the advertising tool is rolling out in select markets, and two brands, Samsung and 3M, are already on-board for the test.

Two things. First, and as always, it’s worth reiterating that Spotify’s whole initiative around building podcast inventory and growing podcast listening on-platform is a means to an end — the end being revenue, of course. And second, the advertising side of Spotify’s business is a means of a kind. Last March, Spotify CFO Barry McCarthy told investors: “The ad-supported service is also a subsidy program that offsets the cost of new-user acquisition”… acquisition into paid subscriptions, of course. (That quote pops up in Meeker’s report, interestingly enough.)

(2) Water and Music’s Cherie Hu flagged this on Twitter: Spotify recently published a job posting up for a producer to work the end-to-end production of the company’s upcoming “internal News-focused podcasts.” The official job posting isn’t up anymore, but you can still spot the details here. It’s, uh, a lot for a single job.

Speaking of news podcasts on Spotify, what do you suppose is the thinking around NPR’s hourly news briefing appearing on the “Your Daily Drive” playlist? I’m sure it’s all still tentative for now, and of course, it’s good and important for NPR to experiment and try stuff out. But I do hope the public radio mothership is actively working through with the implications of successfully riding Spotify as a direct digital highway to listeners. Particularly as they pertain to the local public radio station system, otherwise known as one of the last bastions of local news that people keep saying is in trouble and needs saving, which doesn’t seem to factor into the “Your Daily Drive” playlist whatsoever at the moment. The same deal can be applied to smart speakers to some extent, I think.

Again, it’s all early days. But if I was station head, I imagine I’d be wary AF. How does my  geographically-bounded station fit — strategically, logistically, creatively — into the NPR’s arrangement with Spotify, and whatever platform comes next? More broadly, what are the risk ramifications of lending public radio’s non-profit journalistic power to centralizing profit-seeking entity? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Tracking: June 18, 2019

Mary Meeker presented the 2019 edition of her Internet Trends report at the Code Conference last week… and podcasting pops up for a slide, grouped together with smart speakers as part of the broader Voice trend.

You can find the whole deck here. I’d recommend checking out the Nieman Lab and Recode write-ups. Turns out American adults spend a daily average of around six hours on digital media these days. My burnt out eyes, I would never have known.

Speaking of Vox: Vox Media has ratified its first collective bargaining agreement with the Writer’s Guild of America, East. You can view the (rather impressive!) terms here. I imagine this development has some ramifications for the process at Gimlet Media (brought to you by Spotify), which is also organizing through WGA East…

Tracking

  • Triton Digital has acquired Omny Studios, the Australian on-demand audio publishing platform.
  • Crunchbase News has a fancy chart up on podcast investment deals since 2012.
  • Australian readers, take note of the Jesse Cox Audio Fellowship.
  • Flagging this entry level-oriented fellowship, called Multitrack 2019, which is additionally aimed at people of colour and people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • The Cannes Lions festival, an important annual gathering for advertisers and marketers, is taking place this week.
  • From AdAge: “WPP is hooking up with IHeartMedia on a new partnership aimed at luring more audio business from marketers. The venture, called “Project Listen,” will offer creative consulting and media planning covering multiple platforms, including broadcast radio, digital streaming, podcasts, smart speakers and live events.”
  • From The Verge: “XOXO shut down its subscription platform before it launched.”
  • #Brands.

Release Notes

  • Duolingo’s podcast returns with a new season, this time in French.
  • We’re closing in on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, and CNN has a documentary out on the subject. They’re also rolling out a companion podcast to go with the doc, hosted by Brian Stelter.
  • I’m enjoying Josh Levin’s The Queen, and I’m also enjoying the podcast version that Slate’s produced to go along with the book.
  • Also enjoying: Richard’s Famous Food Podcast, which is… inexplicable.

Quick note… A little shine to throw: I’ve spent the past week or so in Los Angeles poking around, meeting people, and if there’s a name that keeps coming up in conversations, it’s Neon Hum Media.

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.

Where are we now on the subject of subscription-driven podcasts?

It’s been a little over month since Luminary, the aspiring “Netflix for Podcasts,” stumbled out into daylight, and it’ll be a little while longer before we can figure out if the deep-pocketed upstart will actually tell us anything about the viability of a subscription-based business model for podcast-style programming. (It’s also worth noting that the Luminary episode may well tell us not very much at all outside of its own story.)

That said, whatever Luminary will become, it won’t fundamentally serve as a “pure” test of the subscription model, given the relatively late-stage revelation that it was going to also distribute the rest of the open podcast ecosystem. The choice essentially rendered the whole thing into a sparklier version of something we’ve long seen in the marketplace: a luxuriously-resourced Stitcher Premium. Furthermore, as it stands, Luminary won’t be alone as a newcomer within this specific iteration of the paid podcasting experiment. Over in France, there’s a new startup called Majelan that’s angling a similar structure, and over the past few months, I’ve heard mumbles from one or two non-Apple/Spotify podcast apps that’s quietly contemplating the prospect of doing the whole “exclusive content tier” thing as well.

I remain deeply curious about the prospect of a strictly-bounded, subscription-based on-demand audio app for podcast-style programming. For that reason, I’ve been keeping a close eye on what’s been going on with The Athletic — FWIW, I like the product execution a lot, though the programming itself needs some polishing — and I continue to nurture my tin-foil hat theories around the nature of Audible’s increasingly complex original content adventures. (Direct deals with authors? Theater stuff? Kate McKinnon? What is going on?)

Can you build a true paywalled platform for podcasts? I raise the question, of course, fully aware of the terminological contradiction. Podcasting, after all, is structurally defined by its open and free nature, though “Podcasting,” the concept, has evolved as it drifts further into mainstream culture and the entertainment industrial complex.

As it turns out, we’re not too far away from another go at the question.

#Sponcon and Chill

Did you know that Netflix has podcasts? Like, a whole bunch of them? And did you know that those podcasts, overt in advertising purpose as they are, are little more inventive and interesting than one would otherwise expect?

Netflix’s growing portfolio of audio #sponcon was the subject of a Vulture piece I wrote last week, and one of the main ideas I was trying to work through was: what, exactly, do I want from a branded podcast?

It’s a query that I was going to have to confront at some point or another, given that branded podcasts isn’t set to fizzle out anytime soon. If anything, the trend seems to be heading in the other direction, between Pacific Content’s acquisition by Rogers Media last month and a data point in the recent IAB/PWC podcast revenue report indicating that the ad category grew almost ten percentage points between 2016 and 2018. Furthermore, branded content contracts continue to be a vital revenue pillar for many independent podcast studios, especially those that aren’t able to secure the backing of an investor or a corporate overlord right out of the gates.

For what it’s worth, I’m not bothered by this trend as a matter of, like, economic development. I might have been, a few years ago, when I held obvious and less-developed views on artistic integrity and all that bullshit. These days, I don’t see — or at least I fight hard against the impulse of seeing — the work of making branded content as any less honorable or whatever than any other kind of creative work. The realities of the media business are what they are, most of us do not have the luxury and/or the privilege of being able to only make work on our own terms. There will always be the things we need to do to be able to do what we want. (Robert Pattinson made a gazillion dollars off the Twilight movies. Now he gets to make wild Claire Denis movies about… baby-making in space, I think?) Choices and compromise; that’s just adulthood.

But of course, just because branded content is a fact of life doesn’t mean I’m not going to demand more from it, or want something genuinely interesting from the experience. If late-stage capitalism is going to consume everything around me, I might as well ask for a good time.

The BBC Scraps Blanket Licenses

The BBC has announced that it is scrapping universal free TV licences for the over 75s, in a move that signals a substantial shift in the way the corporation is managing its funding. The TV licence, which currently costs £154.50 a year per household, is the major way in which the BBC receives its public funding (I explained the process in more detail here last year). The free licences for the over 75s used to be met by the state, but in 2015 the Conservative government altered the arrangement so that from 2020 the BBC would have to find the money itself, or choose to end the subsidy.

The new arrangement will still involve free licences for some people — anyone who receives the pension tax credit (a state benefit for retired people on low incomes) will have their contribution covered by the BBC, the cost of which is estimated at £250 million. This is estimated to apply to about 900,000 households. It’s still a hefty sum for the BBC sum, although substantially less than continuing with the full subsidy.

This topic is something of a political hot potato in the UK, with some arguing that it was unfair that wealthy pensioners were getting a freebie will struggling young people had to pay, and others saying it’s only reasonable that the retired should get public media for free since they use it more. I’ll be looking at the numbers involved and what it might mean for BBC budgets in more detail in Thursday’s Insider.

Career Spotlight: Felix Trench, Wooden Overcoats and Quid Pro Euro

One thing I find endlessly fascinating about the podcast industry today is digging into how we all ended up here — I find that there are as many routes to the audio world as there are people in it. With that in mind, this week I was delighted to trade emails with Felix Trench, a British actor and writer who is known for his work on the comic fiction podcast Wooden Overcoats. Felix shared some details about his acting training, the international fiction podcast community, and the origins of his comedy.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Felix Trench: I’m an actor. I work for stage, screen and audio, mostly in comedy, and over the past few years podcasting has massively increased the percentage of my work that has microphones. I also write. I play one of the leads in a podcast sitcom called Wooden Overcoats. It’s about rival funeral directors. Just this weekend we were performing an extended version of the first episode at the Underbelly Festival in London. We’re doing it again at the Latitude Festival as well.

I launched Quid Pro Euro on 9 May (to coincide with Europe Day), a short form monthly fiction podcast. I write and narrate it and Zachary Fortais-Gomm produces it. The show is presented as a series of documentaries about the European Union made in 1995, except that this EU is one drawn from an absurdist universe. It plays with bureaucracy and the 90s and what it means to be European. It’s very silly. I grew up in Brussels so ultimately it’s about that.

Outside of podcasting, I spend a lot of time thinking about my job, about why people work in the entertainment industry and how to keep doing so in a way that is both enjoyable to me and useful to everyone else, as well as reading and learning as much as I can to try to get a handle on the different theories of acting (and hopefully get better at it). At the minute I’m reading Michael Chekhov, Gaulier, and the UCB Comedy manual.

HP: What has your career been like?

FT: I left drama school in 2010 where they taught me how to hold a sword, how to eat a scone, and how to dance the pavane. My current professional count is Scones: 0, Pavanes: 0, Swords: 3. I’m hoping to balance that score sheet one day. There was also a lot of radio drama which I’ve drawn on loads in recent years.

My very first job was playing a French student for ten seconds of film time who had no lines but did have a scarf (so that we knew he was French) in a video advertising London’s bid to host the 2017 Athletics World Championships. London won the bid. Since then, there have been a couple of adverts, a couple of soaps, and a fair amount of theatre.

In 2012, I joined the running game/app Zombies, Run! as a regular cast member and every six months or so I get to go back and play in that world. That team anticipated the move toward audio storytelling before the big podcast boom in an incredible way.

I joined a co-operative agency for a few years which meant that once a week I was an agent to other actors. That’s where I learned just how complicated this industry is and why it’s so difficult for any one person to be noticed. Around the same time, I attended a play-writing course at the Royal Court Theatre where I met my good friend, the actor and comedian Tom Crowley. We bonded over finding ourselves in pretty much the same place in our careers. The two of us came up with a plan to create a sitcom and release it as a podcast without going via any gatekeepers (I’d been knocking on the BBC’s door with pitches for a while). We enlisted my then flatmate, the incredibly talented playwright David K. Barnes, as the head writer of our show, and from there the team grew and grew, as has the show. I sometimes compare our download figures with the bums-on-seats I was trying to get into the theatre and it’s just staggering. We’re at multiple Wembleys.

Since then, Overcoats has allowed me to work on a number of other podcast comedies and podcast dramas, and most importantly to meet the people who make them. That is one of the greatest joys of my life. I was in LA in February where the podcast drama community is so engaged and warm and enthusiastic and generous. And sometimes fiction podcasters from other countries come to London and get in touch, people from as far away Norway or New York, so we go for a cup of tea or meet at the pub and trade stories. It’s all just great.

HP: What does ‘career’ mean to you?

FT: I once went to that Derren Brown show where he talks about life being a piece of music ie you focus on the tune, not the final note. He got me up on stage, did some coin tricks with me, and stole my watch. It had a big impact. The industry people I admire most are the ones who never stopped learning, sharing what they learned, and creating. When I grow up, I want to be like them. I would like to reach a point where I can add to the conversation, not just parrot what I’ve heard, so I try to think critically about my own craft. I love what’s happening in the podcast space and hope I can continue to be a part of that in whatever shape it takes next. If not, I’m slowly learning to trust that there will be other doors.

HP: When you first started out being a human, what did you think you wanted to do?

FT: I wanted to be a vet. My friends told me not to want to be a vet because I’d have to see the animals suffer and I accepted this logic without question. I still like animals.

HP: What are you listening to right now?

FT: An unhealthy number of current affairs podcasts. But let’s talk about some great fiction podcasts instead? Victoriocity finished their second series this year; they have some of the best writing in the space and they brought me in to play an incredibly fun character. It’s a 19th century comic detective series in a world where Queen Victoria is mechanised.

I love The Far Meridian which is about a woman in a travelling lighthouse, Red Rhino which is a superhero show with a parallel universes twist, The Orphans which is a sprawling space opera about clones, The Amelia Project which is a multi-country comedy about having people disappeared, Crowley Time and No Planet B which are excellent sketch comedy podcasts with different approaches, and I’m midway through Have You Heard George’s Podcast and The Fitzroy Diaries after their wins at the British and Australian Podcast Awards. Both brilliant.

HP: What’s the most unusual thing working in audio has lead you to?

FT: I once ran a workshop on public speaking for a group of economists. I should have realised it wasn’t quite the touchy-feely arts community I’m used to when the organisers introduced me with several slides about Margaret Thatcher. I got everyone to stretch and warm up their voices because that’s the only way I know to approach voice. I later got feedback that it was “not right and more like a yoga class”. I also told people to focus more on connecting to their breath and audience than on trying to speak in any one accent, despite (as I later learned) the organisers offering accent classes.

I have not been asked back.

You can find Felix on Twitter @felixtrench, the Wooden Overcoats podcast as @OvercoatsWooden, and Quid Pro Euro as @quidproeuro

Tracking: June 11, 2019

Be sure to note… Apple’s podcast-related WWDC announcements last week didn’t stop at the desktop app spin-out and the upcoming enhanced machine learning-driven search engine. The platform is also adding new genres and subgenres to the way it categorizes podcasts. I discussed the move in a recent Insider, but non-paid subscribers can catch up through this 9to5Mac post.

Keep an eye out… WNYC’s Werk It team just rolled out two things worth checking out this morning. First, they announced announcing the results of a pay study — I hear they got over 600 responses off the survey, but we’ll have to see the experience spread — and second, they’ve announced a new advisory group that’s meant to help shape conference programming. You can find the details on that group here.

Tracking

  • From Digiday: “The New York Times’ news podcast ‘The Daily’ is delving deeper into European politics with a weeklong series to help grow its global audience.”
  • From CNN: “Vox Media and employees reach deal on a union contract.”
  • From press release: “Audioboom Names Jessica Landman Sales Director, Ups Jordan Imsho To Junior Sales Director.” This comes as the UK-based podcast company, which is listed on Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange, reported an apparent 92% revenue increase, to $11.7 million, in the 13 month-long period ending December 2018.
  • From Billboard: “Spotify Announces Return of ‘Sound Up’ Podcast Accelerator for Women of Color.”
  • The graphic design for some of Elizabeth Warren’s signs look mighty familiar…

Release Notes

  • The Obamas — they’re just like you! Well, in the sense that they’re make podcasts now. Except they’re making them for Spotify. On an exclusive multi-year deal. So maybe they’re not just like you. Most of you, anyway. Here’s my Vulture write-up on the matter.
  • In the wake of the Sony Music-Davidson-Mayer joint venture, it’s worth keeping an eye on what other music groups are up to. To that end, it seems like Atlantic Records has a new show floating around the podcast charts, The Making of the Shoreline Mafia, which is hosted by Loud Speakers Network vet Jonathan Mena. Not sure if this is directly connected to the podcast initiative the group announced last February, though…
  • From Variety: “Comedy Podcast Network Forever Dog Launches 11 New Shows.”
  • Gimlet Media has a new show out, a fiction pod called The Two Princes, and unless I’m mistaken, I believe this is the second production, after Motherhood Sessions, they’ve rolled out since the company’s acquisition by Spotify closed.
  • The BBC’s collaboration with the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, Death in Ice Valley, is briefly returning for a live show later this month.
  • Was scrolling through a list of true crime podcasts the other day and spotted one called “Dark Poutine,” which is perhaps the most efficiently descriptive title I’ve ever seen.