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Insider: August 20, 2020

Apple rebrands Beats 1 Spotify-CSPAN Follow-up to PRX... and more!

Apple rebrands Beats 1, launches two new radio stations. Not directly podcast-related… but I mean, everything Apple does from an audio standpoint is always interesting for our purposes, if only for the way it reflects how the company is thinking about its position against platform competitors like Spotify and Pandora.

The news: Apple seems to be consolidating its audio content branding, swapping out the name “Beats 1” to “Apple Music 1.” It’s also launching two new radio stations to supplement that core Zane Lowe-led “Beats 1/Apple Music 1” stream: Apple Music Hits and Apple Music Country.

Perhaps the most intriguing way to look at this is to see this as a  “Apple expanding its original audio content” kind of development. But that wouldn’t exactly be all that accurate, since these radio stations are really discovery and curation mechanisms more than programming efforts, even if Lowe does dish out original content in the form of interviews and things like that. In any case, the word on Apple’s interests in original podcast content doesn’t appear to have changed much over the past few months: that they’re investing in shows to promote their other original media products like Apple TV+ movies as opposed to, say, financing audio shows that would put compete with Spotify’s various original and exclusive programming outputs.

For more discussion on this story, hit up Ashley Carman’s write-up over at The Verge. She seems to be a little more bullish on the possibility of Apple pursuing more Zane Lowe Interview Series moves in the future than I am, I think. “It seems possible Apple could pull this off with other shows, of which it now has many,” she writes. “That would not only set it up to have a robust live radio station offering but also a solid podcasting lineup.”

Before we move on: I’m not particularly keen on doing much Apple Kremlinology myself — let’s leave that to the Grubers and the Thompsons — but I do find at least having a familiarity with what’s happening elsewhere in the Apple organization useful in terms of getting a feel of what to expect. To that end, I enjoyed the Wall Street Journal’s recent profile on Tim Cook, in which the most striking takeaway, at least for me, is a shift in thinking about the CEO as being a product-centric person (a la Jobs) to a finance-centric person. Through that lens, a lot of things about the Modern Apple make a lot more sense — shout-out to the $2 trillion value, which means pretty much nothing to most of us mortals — and there’s a way you can relatedly view the Apple TV+ programming efforts as an extension of this finance-driven worldview.

Television and movies are tried and true, well-tested products of value creation; podcasting still has long ways to go. Hence, from a risk standpoint, I doubt Apple will ever take that big a swing in terms of original programming. What is the full view of the realizable upside?Follow-up to Spotify-CSPAN partnership. This probably mostly speaks to my personal nerdy interests in political communication and whatnot, but I find the Spotify-CSPAN partnership — centered on distributing audio versions of the programming from the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention, and which itself comes after another partnership that saw Spotify carrying audio from John Lewis’ memorial service, courtesy of Higher Ground — pretty fascinating, but also, you know, a little uncanny.

Bloated, bizarre, and unnecessarily bombastic as the conventions may be, they are nevertheless artifacts of historical importance, and the notion that Spotify is stepping into this lane where it can serve as a popularly-accessible repository for this type of archival material strikes my brain as something that rubs weird with its composition as a profit-seeking entity. Then again, there’s long been precedence for this on video: as an aforementioned nerd, I’ve watched hundreds of hours of C-SPAN videos on YouTube.Speaking of politics… I would say that I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen a bigger flood of new election podcasts yet, but truth is, I continue to believe that most of that work has been absorbed by daily news podcasts, election podcasts that carried over from 2016, and political podcasts that carried over from the Mueller hearings, plus the fact that pandemic has pretty much dulled a ton of horse-racey narratives that would have warranted that kind of sports media-like interest.

Anyway, I say all this to set up this tiny news bite: CNN Audio has launched two election/politics podcasts into this climate, CNN Political Briefing and Politically Sound, and this development stood out to me because of its contextual irregularity.Follow-up to PRX. This nearly slipped by me — didn’t seem to be particularly flagged on social media, or anything of the sort — but Roman Mars, creator of Radiotopia’s 99% Invisible, wrote a blog post commenting on what’s been going on at PRX lately, which was catalyzed by an internal email written by an outgoing employee, Palace Shaw, who sought to draw attention to what she argues were expressions of systemic racism at the organization. (I wrote up that development, and published a link to Shaw’s letter, last week.)

Mars writes:

PRX has commissioned an outside investigator to look into the concerns that have been raised. I support this investigation. Other PRX staff members have also demanded greater transparency, accountability, and a better system of checks-and-balances for senior leadership. I will use my power to influence PRX to listen and take action based on the results of the investigation and the feedback they’ve received from current and former employees.  I will also use the employees’ guidance and example to lead 99pi more effectively as well. I see ways in which some of these criticisms apply to my own leadership.

Mars isn’t the only Radiotopia figure to comment on this on-going development — others, like Helen Zaltzman, Hrishikesh Hirway, and Jonathan Mitchell, have also taken to social media to either agitate or acknowledge the matter — but as a key founding figure of the Radiotopia network, his comment is the one that will likely be most subject to scrutiny.This week in Hollywoo.

(1) From Deadline: “Vida creator Tanya Saracho is getting into business with UCP, signing a development deal with the studio, a division of Universal Studio Group. Under the pact, Saracho will develop and create original content for television as well as podcasts via the studio’s UCP Audio extension. As part of the deal, Saracho will establish a lab and incubator program for Latinx voices.”

(2) Mark Stern, former president of original programming at the SyFy cable channel, is heading up a new podcast studio “focusing on science fiction, supernatural, and fantasy audio experiences” that’s funded by Whalerock Industries. Deadline, again, has the press release.Revolving Door. Rooster Teeth, the WarnerMedia-owned fan entertainment company, has named AJ Feliciano as the head of Rooster Teeth’s podcast network, “The Roost.”

Feliciano was previously the Director of Partnerships and Strategy at the company. This is primarily interesting because Rooster Teeth is perhaps a prime example of a video-first operation — they are one of the participants of Spotify’s emerging video podcast product — and that this personnel move suggests increasing interest in this particular bucket.Over at NPR… Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire goes a little deeper into post-pandemic NPR, which I wrote about in an Insider last month, in which radio listening is plummeting while digital consumption is up, up, up. The big takeaway is that NPR will make more money off podcasts than on radio shows, but there is a bunch of other stuff to flag as well.

Of particular interest is the specific platform numbers, which Scire breaks out:

In total, 57 million listen or watch or read NPR content each week, up 10 percent from this time last year. Comparing spring 2019 to spring 2020, here’s where NPR saw its numbers move:

  • Unique weekly visitors to NPR.org increased 94 percent

  • Smart speaker streams and on-demand audio increased 29 percent

  • Live stream listeners increased 39 percent

  • NPR app usage grew 22 percent

  • NPR One app usage increased 19 percent

  • NPR Music, through YouTube, saw its traffic increase by 90 percent

Meanwhile, as NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik reported last month, NPR’s radio shows “lost roughly a quarter of their audience between the second quarter of 2019 and the same months in 2020.”

If this is in your wheelhouse, I’d recommend reading Sarah’s piece in full. One line to watch: “Bringing a younger, more diverse audience into the NPR fold means reaching listeners on the platforms they’re already on… at the top, executives are putting two and two together from the demographic reports and, bubbling up from the bottom, junior producers and interns want to produce content that their digital-native friends will actually see.”

Supplement this with the followingFrom The American Prospect: “‘I Just Don’t Hear It’: How whiteness dilutes voices of color at public radio stations.”