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Free Trade

Not being a Spanish speaker myself, I don’t get many opportunities to fully enjoy a podcast like Las Raras, the Spanish-language narrative audio project that serves up arthouse-esque documentaries about “people who break the rules and fight for social change” in Latin America.

The Chilean duo Catalina May and Martin Cruz have been producing the show independently since 2016, and the one time I got to properly engage with the show was sometime last year, when I was fortunate enough to catch them giving a live performance of one of their stories in Boston last year. That staging involved subtitles displayed over an assortment of moving images that played as May and Cruz delivered the Spanish narration. I loved what I saw, though, predictably, I found myself thinking about the broader operation, wondering if it was at a place where May and Cruz could continue making their show while getting compensated decently to do so.

A variation of an answer arrived last week when Adonde Media, a globally-minded podcast studio founded by Martina Castro, announced that it will be producing and distributing the fifth season of the show. The arrangement sees Adonde Media fully funding the new season of the project, and serving as a close collaboration with the team on episodes. (Castro herself will now be credited as an executive producer on the show.) Aside from cost-coverage and creative input, Adonde will also be shouldering the responsibilities around promotion, marketing, and exploring monetization opportunities for the podcast. May and Cruz, meanwhile, will continue to own the show and its intellectual property.

Adonde’s move to distribute the latest season of Las Raras marks the start of its expansion into original content. It’s a new lane for the company, which is prepping a whole slate of original shows to be rolled out over the next year.

For Castro, the leap into original program development wasn’t exactly part of the plan when she started her company in 2017. A founding member of Radio Ambulante — the Spanish-language narrative podcast stalwart nowadays distributed by NPR — Castro founded Adonde Media as a client work-oriented production studio focused on making multilingual work with global companies that, as she puts it, “didn’t need to be convinced of the potential of audiences outside the United States who speak languages other than English.”

Adonde’s first client was Duolingo, the digital language learning service, with which it collaborated to create the popular Duolingo Spanish podcast, which Castro produces and hosts. (According to a Duolingo rep, that podcast, which was designed to help English-speaking listeners learn Spanish, has garnered over 39 million lifetime downloads since launching in late 2017. It dropped its ninth season last week, which takes the form of a serialized true crime story about the 2006 Río Bank robbery in Buenos Aires.) That Duolingo relationship would spawn two other podcasts — one for learning French, one for learning English — and tee up Adonde Media to take on a range of other clients: TED, Spotify, Vice News, and Georgetown University.

That line of contract work brought considerable growth to Adonde, which now boasts ten people on staff and an additional stable of fifteen-plus contractors working across the Americas and Europe. But as Castro told me recently, she ultimately came to the realization that the company couldn’t avoid grappling with functions like audience development and monetization head-on if it wanted to achieve its goals, which, as she phrases it, are to “grow the pie for content, audiences, and creators” from a truly global perspective.

Adonde’s expansion into original content — which is to say, non-client contract work — sets the studio down a trajectory that’s become fairly common for podcast production studios over the years. Many of these companies start out by focusing on branded content work to establish a foundational flow of revenue to set the business up, with the long-term goal being to break into original show creation as it’s increasingly understood that original show portfolios effectively function both as strong brand differentiators and as a collection of intellectual property assets that can produce considerable value over the long run.

But the situation with Las Raras is distinct in the sense that (a) the show doesn’t ultimately end up as a piece of intellectual property for Adonde Media and (b) it highlights another type of business opportunity for the globally-minded podcast studio: to serve as a viable bridge between non-American podcasts — whose native podcast industries might not be as robust as America’s just yet — and American monetization opportunities.

That is perhaps the most interesting thing about this story: the way in which the arrangement between Adonde Media and Las Raras feels roughly reminiscent of how non-American films and television programs get signed for stateside distribution, in which those media products are given the opportunity to benefit from the typically larger monetization opportunities of the American market. The parallel isn’t perfect, of course, given that we’re talking about the podcasting context where shows structurally have theoretical access to audiences in America — in addition to every other country plugged into the open internet — by default. But the larger point is that access to audiences everywhere isn’t quite the same as access to advertising revenue everywhere, and what Adonde is doing here is to present itself as a broker between American advertisers and Las Raras, whose second largest audience is in the United States. (A common trait in many Spanish-language podcasts that Castro has come across, she notes.)

We’ve seen a form of this type of arrangement before. Last summer, Stitcher and Wondery partnered up to form Podfront UK, an ad sales entity formed to help both companies monetize the UK listenership within their show portfolio by connecting their inventory with UK advertisers. However, to phrase this from a purely American-centric perspective, Podfront UK can be roughly described as an “export” initiative, while Adonde Media, by contrast, seems to be conceptually operating as an “import” initiative with its Las Raras arrangement.

“There is just so much more data, knowledge, and experience concentrated in the US podcasting scene, not to mention a much more mature advertising market with brands that ‘get’ the value of podcasts,” said Castro, who has previously pushed for more Spanish-language audience data, in part serving positioning Adonde as a funder of the first U.S. Latino Podcast Listener Report from Edison Research, together with Lantigua Williams & Co, Libsyn, NPR, and Pandora.

She added: “It makes sense to not only grow a non-US show inside the US, but also to see how we can apply lessons learned here in Latin America.”

When asked to characterize the state of the podcast industry across Latin America, Castro describes a region that’s fractured across various different economic, political, cultural, and social realities within the region. She argues that a missing ingredient — one that’s key towards realizing a more vibrant Latin American podcast scene — is the presence of strong audio and radio institutions that can provide producers consistent opportunities for training, experience, and jobs.

“News and media are rather traditional and corporate in LATAM,” she further explained. “There are very few indie or narrative outlets where one could train in narrative journalism more generally, and even fewer to train in narrative journalism or storytelling in audio specifically.” Which isn’t to say that there aren’t attempts at building new podcast businesses in Latin America. Castro observed that new ones seem to be popping up every month — among them, a venture called Podium Podcast, which is financed by the media conglomerate Grupo Prisa, that has been putting out experimental work since the beginning, including audio science fiction.

Castro was quick to cut against the notion that there isn’t a healthy ecosystem for Spanish-language podcasting, in part by pointing to increasing investments by (American) companies like Spotify and Audible in Spanish-language audio shows. The point, rather, is that while the podcast scene in countries like Argentina and Spain should be considered strong Spanish-language markets, it’s still fairly early for them, and they haven’t yet reached the “boom” status currently enjoyed by American podcasting.

She hopes to get there, and for Adonde to be a big part of that process. “The most critical part is making creative, beautiful work,” she said. “It’s our guiding principle… but it’s not enough to stop there. For us to see a robust, thriving podcast scene in Latin America, for example, where we can cultivate the talent we need in order to make those beautiful podcasts in Spanish, those people need to get paid.” This partnership with Las Raras, it seems, is part and parcel of that.