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Insider: August 26, 2021 — Waning Rogan?, Spotify expands sub tools, Never Tweet Never Podcast

NICK NEWS

Joe Rogan’s waning influence?
I’m still on vacation, so I’ll try to make this quick.

Yesterday saw a fascinating investigation by Ashley Carman over at The Verge, which attempted to illustrate the extent to which Joe Rogan’s impact and relevance as (arguably) the most powerful podcaster in the business — and a prominent voice in the so-called “intellectual dark web” — has declined since moving The Joe Rogan Experience exclusively to Spotify in December. Because Spotify keeps listening numbers close to the chest (natch), The Verge sought to paint the picture through a secondary metric: the average bumps in the Twitter followings of guests who appeared on the show, contrasting that metric in its state before and after the podcast went exclusive to Spotify.

The Verge ultimately found that the show’s impact on driving new Twitter followings for guests dropped by about half since consolidating its presence on Spotify, taking this as evidence of Rogan’s waning influence. Some seem to be further interpreting this as evidence of a more general failure associated with pursuing platform-exclusive strategies in podcasting.

For what it’s worth, I think the ramifications and details of this investigation needs to be unpacked further, though I don’t dispute the broader premise that Rogan’s listenership, impact, and relevance has been negatively affected by the move behind the Swedish wall. (Given what happened to Howard Stern after he moved to the satellite radio business under SiriusXM, I can’t imagine this possibility wasn’t on the radar for Spotify and Rogan’s team — nor that this wasn’t part of the bet both sides are making.) It’s just that I believe there are some assumptions baked into this investigation worth making explicit in order to properly think through the meaning of The Verge’s findings.

This will be messy, as I’m thinking out loud:

(1) To begin with, the investigation is principally built on the notion that “bump in Twitter followings” makes for a good enough proxy to generally represent Rogan’s impact and relevance. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure about hinging the core of the inquiry on this metric, at least if you’re looking for something that’s able to make as big a statement as the piece is making. It strikes me as a little too secondary, too soft, and more importantly, potentially too overly specific: not everybody who listens to Rogan is an active Twitter user, and to the extent you’d like to attempt making the metric generalizable, you’d need to take the further step at getting a sense of the extent to which active Twitter users proportionally make up Rogan’s listenership. And if the move is to double down on that specificity and work on the assumption that active Twitter users represent the most engaged/fervent Rogan listeners, what does it mean that most engaged/fervent listeners aren’t following Rogan behind the Swedish wall? Did the move behind the wall break relationships with the most engaged — or are they not actually the most engaged at all? Now, I’m not arguing that “bump in Twitter followings” has no value as a metric for these purposes. After all, that metric did see a fall by half, thus representing a very real decline. But who declined, specifically? And how does that change the way we think about the composition of Rogan’s audience? Did it get smaller and less defined… or did it get smaller and more concentrated?

(2) I found the piece’s secondary metric — changes in the volume of Google Searches for “Joe Rogan” before and after the podcast went exclusive to Spotify — to be a lot more fruitful and interesting, as Google Searches cut across a more universal swathe of demographics. (After all, everybody Googles — or Baidus? — and not everyone tweets.) The primary expression of strength here is “spikes in interest,” which I feel is a good enough proxy to represent the specific nature of Rogan’s relevance, at least to the broader culture, given the relationship between the podcaster’s identity and controversy. The decline in frequency of interest spikes, as exhibited in the piece, is most definitely striking. That said, I’m also struck by this line in the piece: “This could be because people used to search Rogan’s name to find his episodes, but it could also be that inside Spotify, his controversial comments — often the cause of spikes in interest around Rogan — aren’t reaching as many ears.” I’m not sure if the causal effect there maps: you don’t need all that many actively listening ears for a controversial statement or episode or moment to initially blow up. And I think there are perhaps other potential factors to weigh as well: has the dude simply said fewer controversial things since going exclusive? (I’m not going to personally pull a Claire McNear to find out.) Is there generally more exhaustion grounding outsider outrage around his stuff since the Biden administration took over? Does the general decline in interest for political and politics-adjacent media factor in somehow?

(3) Now, I’ll show my cards here: despite what might sound like rebuttals in this column, I do buy the general shape of The Verge’s findings, at least on the notion that Rogan’s listenership — and therefore relevance — has taken a hit since going behind the Swedish wall. But I think there’s still some ambiguity as to whether the hit comes more from not being universally available on all podcast apps… or if it comes more from specifically not being fully consumable on YouTube. Given the more robust and activated audience pool on YouTube, along with that platform’s deeper relationship with the broader so-called “intellectual dark web” culture broadly associated with Rogan, my gut feeling is that The Joe Rogan Experience’s drop in impact has more to do with its absence on YouTube than on Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and so on. Again, just a feeling.

(4) However, I don’t necessarily buy the idea that what’s happening to The Joe Rogan Experience since going exclusive to Spotify should be automatically applied, in effect and in learning, to every other show that’s gone and going exclusive to Spotify. That implies a universality, or at least similarities, in audience bases between different shows; that all audiences will respond in similar ways to the same structural mechanic — that other exclusives like Call Her Daddy and Armchair Expert will experience drops in listenership, impact, and relevance in approximately the same way. I just don’t know if that will work out to be the case.

(5) So, let’s assume that all this is true: the drop in listenership, the waning influence, the loss in relevance. (Again, I generally do, even if I quibble with the methodology.) Does that necessarily make this a bad deal for Spotify and Rogan, along with everyone else that signed big exclusive deals with the Swedish streaming platform? TBD for Spotify; it still works out if the proportion of listeners who did follow Rogan behind the Swedish paywall is big enough to drive the metrics they want. (And let’s be clear: 70% of a gargantuan original number is still a big valuable number.) As for Rogan… well, he’s now $100 million richer, and will be so even if his contract isn’t renewed. Alexandra Cooper is now $60 million richer, and will be so even if her contract isn’t renewed. That’s a tradeoff that still makes sense to me. Then again, I don’t know what it’s like to be paid that much money, and how one’s universe of internal needs changes at that level of wealth and comfort. Maybe the question, then, becomes about legacy, in which case the real agent to watch in terms of their approach to these findings would be something like Higher Ground.

(6) Where this story of waning influence, listenership, and relevance is probably more sensitive and impactful comes to the smaller-to-mid-sized shows and talents who are exclusive to the platform and are presumably not paid as much as Rogan et. al. Then again, it’s a different calculation with them.

(7) Last thing. Decline or no, Rogan remains… how shall we say, “impactful.” Some percentage of his listenership might not have followed him over behind the Swedish wall, but the ones who do are most definitely the ones who are most engaged. The absolute number of that remaining percentage is probably still very large, and they continue to be very impacted by him — and perhaps less visibly so.

Okay, that’s it from me. A few more links, and I’m back to vacation mode.

Linkz.

  • Relating to the above, Spotify has started pulling more of its internally-produced shows behind the Swedish wall. I guess this leads me to a point (8): the whole Rogan-influence thing might change if Spotify succeeds in becoming dramatically outsized in its facilitation of the podcast universe.
  • One last Spotify thing, this time from Insider about how Gimlet didn’t quite turn out to be the HBO of Podcasts that Spotify was hoping for when they spent $230 million on ‘em. On a related note, the division appears to be hiring for a crap-ton of people on the management side.
  • From eMarketer: “In China, podcasting is emerging from its niche.”
  • Rachel Maddow is apparently re-upping her contract with MSNBC, meaning that she probably isn’t going off and starting her own podcast company. Or maybe she will, given that her role is set to undergo some considerable change from her current breakneck nightly situation.

ARIA NEWS

Reporter digs up podcast, Jeopardy! host steps down. For those of you who don’t watch Jeopardy! or haven’t been following any of its associated news, here’s a recent rundown before I explain how it relates to podcasts: longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek died in November 2020, and since his relatively unexpected passing (he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but outlived his prognosis), the show had been trying out a rotation of guest hosts, most of whom were widely assumed to be “auditioning” for the permanent role. The week after Trebek’s passing, Jeopardy! executive producer Mike Richards appeared on viewers’ screens to confirm the news, and the little-known Richards then surprised audiences by reappearing months later, filling in as the second of the aforementioned guest hosts and claiming in his debut episode that it was a necessary solution for a production staff in a pinch. That narrative, however, was complicated by numerous accounts of former colleagues who recalled Richards’ longtime desire to hostJeopardy!, describing it as “watercooler talk” in his former workplace.

These accounts were dug up by Claire McNear, a reporter for The Ringer, who’s written about Jeopardy! for years, and who had particular reason to look into Richards after Variety revealed a few weeks ago that, despite all of the other folks who enthusiastically tried their hand at hosting Jeopardy!, it was Richards — again, the show’s executive producer — who was in final talks for the permanent job. (Many were rooting for Levar Burton or Ken Jennings to be Trebek’s successor.)

What McNear’s subsequent reporting yielded was the finding that Richards had apparently recorded many, many episodes of a podcast called The Randumb Show, on which he criticized and sexualized women’s bodies, shat on a whole slew of people and living conditions, and admitted, ironically, that he really isn’t a trivia person. Richards has since stepped down as host.

Now, as many podcasts are free to listen to and exist in a kind of perpetually available state (though episodes of The Randumb Show have since been taken down), the records of Richards’ past words were out there, and even though Sony, which produces Jeopardy!, has said it didn’t know about the podcast, reporters have repeatedly expressed surprise at this, bringing McNear onto NPR, CNN, and the like to ask how it was her, and not a hypothetical internal team responsible with vetting Richards as a host, who sniffed it out.

I’ll say from firsthand experience that McNear has had her finger on the pulse (or the buzzer?) for a long time; if anyone was going to do it, it would be her. She wrote the book on Jeopardy!, literally, and is versatile enough to have been a killer source for a piece I wrote about trivia this past spring. She knows her stuff — and apparently some of Sony’s stuff, too. The Ringer team also nabbed some of the audio from the now-removed podcast episodes and embedded them in the article of McNear’s that’s said to have spurred the resignation, so if you’re so inclined, go listen. Also, please enjoy this limerick.

Spotify expands subscription option to all US creators. Now that I’ve thoroughly aired out a story that was so astonishingly at the intersection of my interests, let’s now focus on an announcement out from Spotify this week. On Tuesday, the company said that a trial that allowed a select few podcasters to publish paywalled content (see: the paid versions of NPR podcasts that existed before NPR’s in-house signups went live) will now be available to anyone in the United States.

NPR also published paid versions using Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, and here’s where Spotify’s setup stands out in contrast: It’s explicitly stated in the press release that creators will get access to select contact information from subscribers, with the intention that creators will “further engage with their subscriber bases and offer even more benefits” beyond the content itself, and until 2023 when a 5% fee goes into effect, creators get to keep all subscription revenue, minus any fees from payment processors. That’s right, Spotify takes no cut, as the company has maintained before.

This, of course, could be held up against Apple’s subscription model, which carves out 15-30% of subscription revenue from creators depending on how long they’ve been at it, and then there’s the only recently and partially resolved bugs Apple’s been having with its podcast app. The contrast between the two companies is even more directly emphasized, though: Spotify itself seems to have taken a dig at its competitors in the press release, noting that creators who opt to use Spotify’s subscription service “can reach listeners wherever they are,” specifically “because Spotify is available on iOS and Android.”

Meanwhile, over at Apple… the company’s not doing nothing. The publication Patently Apple reported, as you might have guessed from the name, a new patent that the company acquired for spatial audio technology. This technology, though, is specifically for use with augmented reality — in other words, to supplement visuals. So, while the company’s hardware is obviously important, the timing of this pursuit is a bit unfortunate, considering it positions Apple to look like its priorities are largely somewhere other than podcasting.

Lastly, another celeb deal. This one is between iHeartMedia and Red Table Talk, the Facebook-Watch-Original-turned podcast hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith, her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, and her daughter Willow Smith. Through this “overall deal,” iHeart will distribute the shows and establish a broader network — The Red Table Talk Audio Network — that will push out five new shows over the next two years, at least some of which will be co-produced with another company. Fittingly, considering Red Table Talk’s apparent commitment to touching more than one medium, iHeart framed the deal this way: “Red Table Talk (RTT) continues to expand its reach.”