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Insider: September 23, 2021 — A shakeup at Himalaya

Hey there, Insiders, and welcome to your first paid Hot Pod since our return. I come bearing great news: as Nick previously mentioned, we want to thank you all for staying with us through this transition with a free, three-month subscription of New York Magazine, where you can also read Nick’s latest work on Vulture. To redeem it, email me at ashley.carman@theverge.com.

Okay, that’s all for now! On to some exclusive news, a small scoop, and more.

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SCOOP: Himalaya lays off staff, gains new CEO

Things are changing at Himalaya, the company funded and started by one of China’s biggest podcasting apps, Ximalaya. Earlier this summer, the company laid off multiple employees, pivoted its content strategy, and instated Ariel Liu, formerly Himalaya’s COO, as CEO. Liu confirmed the layoffs to me, saying: “In the past year, we have been pursuing several interesting directions across different markets. It became clear that to become more successful, we needed to focus on certain efforts while scaling down others.” 

A source close to the situation says the team scaled down by nearly half, which included both full-time and freelance employees, from a height of around 20 full-time people to around 12 now. 

Liu took over as CEO in late July, she says, after the former CEO Wang Yu moved back to China to “focus more on his family and personal projects.” (Yu was in charge when HiStudios launched out of Himalaya and subsequently spun out, leading to this mess.) Meanwhile, the company is also pivoting its content strategy. When it launched in the US in 2019, Himalaya cared mostly about premium podcasts and subscriptions, but it later focused on MasterClass-adjacent programming. It’s now pivoting again to concentrate on short-form inspirational and motivational content, or audio that encourages people to have a productive, good day, which Liu says is the goal. Those life lessons might come from the stories of DMX, Martin Luther King Jr., and Lady Gaga but told by someone who works for Himalaya. As far as their market focus, Liu says they’re not just concerned with reaching a Chinese-speaking audience but also are “investing a lot of resources to find that same great product-market-fit in the English and Spanish-speaking markets. The latter is extremely important for us to become a globally-recognized app.”

EXCLUSIVE: Podcast collective Hub & Spoke receives a $100K gift, goes the nonprofit route

Hub & Spoke, a podcast collective based out of Boston that is focused on educational nonfiction shows, says today it’s received a $100,000 gift from the Rasmussen Family Fund — its first revenue of any kind. The money will be used to hire a development and communications manager who will primarily focus on finding new, additional donors who are interested in supporting the nonprofit. Any funds that are further raised will go toward compensating the staff of its member shows, of which there are currently nine. (The team plans to open up applications for more shows as well, so if you’re interested, check out their website to get in touch.) Although they’re seeking donations from larger supporters, they also plan to roll out listener memberships in the coming year to encourage smaller scale, monthly contributions. The ultimate goal is that Hub & Spoke can compensate these creators for their time and effort spent on making their podcasts.

“There isn’t a great sort of support system for independent creators in almost any field, and that includes podcasting,” says Wade Roush, president of the collective and host and producer of the tech-and-culture podcast Soonish. “What we’re trying to do is create on a small, modest level, we’re trying to create an institution to support some of those indie podcasters because we just think that’s such an important layer in the whole marketplace. We wouldn’t want the professionalization and corporatization of podcasting to leave out some of the more free-minded individual creators who are out there making their own stuff without any constraints.”

A quick bit of analysis here: We’ve seen podcast networks tied to nonprofits in the past, most famously with PRX and Radiotopia, so there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason this wouldn’t work. But I’m also particularly interested in how we’re seeing the idea of collectives spread outside of podcasting. Earlier this summer, I wrote about a group trying to pull their collective weight to distribute and monetize social audio content they recorded from various apps. (Although it appears they’ve already stopped publishing.) Still, I imagine as the platforms become bigger and more powerful, we’ll see more indie show creators seeking a home that affords them collective bargaining power.

New Apple Podcasts features come with iOS 15

Apple released iOS 15 this week, and although we still haven’t gotten the ability to share our screens on FaceTime (WHY!), we did gain some new Apple Podcasts functionality. “Shared With You” allows podcasts that were sent over Messages to show up directly in a new section within the podcast app, while the “Personalized Recommendations” section will do just that: recommend new shows for you based on your listening history. Apple says it’s basing these recommendations on show categories, so nothing too fancy happening here. I’m personally intrigued by the sharing feature, namely because one of the world’s strongest social networks, IMO, is iMessage, and taking advantage of its inter-app functionality only makes it stronger. Now I want people to send me podcast recs in iMessage!

In other Apple news…

SiriusXM launches Marvel channel on Apple Podcasts with new subscription product

I covered this one for The Verge, which you can read here. The gist is for $3.99 / month, Apple Podcasts users can subscribe for premium Marvel audio content in the form of early access to episodes and exclusive programming. I’m a little surprised Sirius, a company whose whole model is based on getting people to pay for its content, is going through Apple Podcasts to sell this subscription. It’s not available on any other Sirius-owned apps, like Pandora or Stitcher, although it does come included with a Sirius membership through the SXM app. I don’t want to bore you all with talk of “funnels,” but clearly Sirius sees Apple Podcasts as a funnel to bring people into the Sirius family or, at the very least, become a potential revenue driver. Plus, Apple Podcasts is available in more countries than Sirius sells subscriptions in, so that’s also a perk.

And now for a line of comic book audio news…

HBO Max’s Batman: The Audio Adventures is now available 

HBO’s bold move to make its new Batman show exclusive to its video streaming app happened. The first two episodes are also available on other podcasting apps — speaking of the funnel — but to hear all 10 episodes, you’ll have to subscribe to HBO Max and download the app. See, bold! I’ll be watching this play out.

Okay, I know we’re going long here, so I’m going to wrap up with some audio ~moves~ and then Aria will be in your inbox tomorrow with more.

~MOVES~

  • Korri Kolesa, former COO of ART19 and CRO at Stitcher / Midroll, is now chief revenue officer of Veritonic. She’ll be tasked with “establishing Veritonic as the industry standard for measuring audio effectiveness, campaign performance and competitive intelligence across podcast, radio and streaming ads.” 
  • Clubhouse hired Chelsea Macdonald, formerly at Instagram, as head of entertainment partnerships. She’ll work with “established and emerging talent, as well as streamers and studios, to develop their strategies on Clubhouse,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
  • Adriene Hill, formerly the interim managing editor at the California Regional Newsroom, will now lead it as the permanent managing editor. The organization is a collaboration among KQED, KPBS, CapRadio, KPCC / LAist, KCRW, and NPR, and Hill formerly served as managing editor of KPCC / LAist. She’ll be leading the organization in its goal to provide “essential content sharing and partnerships between some of the state’s largest news operations.”
  • Katherine Wells is now Vox’s editorial director of explanatory audio, a new role. (Disclosure: Vox is also owned by Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.) Wells was most recently the executive producer of podcasts at The Atlantic. In this role she’ll “oversee all of Vox’s narrative shows,” and lead efforts to pilot and develop new shows in 2022.

That’s it for today! Have a lovely Thursday. Aria’s got you covered for tomorrow, and I’ll be back Tuesday with more.