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Insider: December 5, 2019

WNYC's Robert Krulwich to retire; Facebook Podcasts?; Sony Music's in-house podcast team... and more

Just got this in the inbox: “Robert Krulwich, Co-Host of WNYC Studios’ Radiolab, to Retire in January 2020.”

Du Jour. “Podcasts and Travel Apps? Facebook Is Working on Those.”

It was about sundown when I saw that headline, from New York Times, fluttering about my Twitter feed yesterday, and you know what? I didn’t bat an eyelash. The reaction would’ve been a little different, maybe even a year ago: a jolt of adrenaline, probably, caked in with some anxiety. Now, it’s just another headline. I suppose it’s an indication of the kind of year it’s been.

There are a few reasons for this, but I think it comes down to two things.

The first thing: I’ve begun to harbor a fairly strong belief that we’re probably not going to see any fundamental new additions to the podcast distribution universe, whether it’s a big platform or a small upstart. At least, not in the way that it’s currently composed, and not in the way that we currently desire the underlying experience. (Spotify, obviously, has been the sole possible exception to the belief, but even then, I’d rather keep watching the listening numbers and spread first before I come down with any strong feelings about it.) Despite the fact that podcasting continues to grow in scale and popularity, the category still doesn’t feel like it’s the kind of thing that can be easily reshaped in terms of its underlying infrastructure. If Facebook’s interested in building out some sort of audio app, they’re presumably better off targeting a vastly different kind of experience — I don’t know, an audio TikTok equivalent, or a platform for audio diaries, or something — and then just bracketing those things out conceptually.

The second thing has more to do with Facebook: this appears to be just another example of a big ol’ tech company tryin’ out a bunch of shit, most of which will probably go nowhere, as is usually the case with these R&D excursion-equivalent of throwing random shit at the wall to see what sticks. The Times report, as it is written, seems to frame this story as part of a larger narrative about Facebook essentially turning over as many rocks it can find as it attempts to uncover a new lane for them to conquer in pursuit of further market growth. (Key detail: the various projects highlighted in the piece are carried out by a newly formed division called the New Product Experimentation Team, with a mandate to “to build the future of Facebook, whatever that may look like,” according to sources.) Meanwhile, some of its other major bets, like virtual reality vis a vis Oculus, haven’t really panned out the way they hoped it would.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t read too much into this story. Not now, not yet. It’s just another day in the capitalist wasteland.

One way to possibly read it, though: as another data point highlighting podcasts as the media format du jour. That Times report made me think about this absolutely stellar and bonkers piece by The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs, which chronicles the adventures of a bunch of Canadian hipsters — including a former editor for Vice Canada — that, a few months ago, ended up pleading guilty to a conspiracy to import cocaine.

Like so many people who have crashed and burned in digital media, Slava Pastuk sees a bright future for himself in the world of podcasting. “The whole podcast industry is so cool,” he said in September, staring out at his mother’s tomato plants in her Brampton, Ontario, backyard. He’d spent most of 2019 living in her basement, listening to the Red Scare podcast, and thinking about his many, many mistakes. He’s “blacklisted” as a writer in Canadian media, he thinks, but maybe there’s room for him in the world of audio storytelling.

Truly, if there’s anything that more embodies podcasting’s du jour-ness than this, I’m hard pressed to come up with it.

Surreally, this dude doesn’t seem particularly unfamiliar to me. Over the past year in particular, I’ve been the recipient of a bunch of pitch emails — and found myself in numerous conversations — presenting scenarios not exactly, but somewhat, like this. (By which I mean the “crashed and burned in digital media” part, not the felon part. As far as I know, anyway.) It’s an extension of a sub-genre that Bryan Curtis, who also writes for The Ringer, calls the “Pariah Podcast,” which itself is somewhat the kind of further realization of what podcasting’s “low barriers to entry” and off-grid distribution reality promised in the first place.

I’ll show my cards here: like many who passed around the opening section of the article online, I’m filled with a weariness that this is how podcasting is being thought about in the ~larger culture~. But I’m also cognizant that this, in some way, is probably part of the point.

Anyway, the aforementioned former Vice Canada editor was sentenced to nine years in prison on Tuesday. He told the National Post he’s going to do a newsletter from the inside.

[H/t to KH, who flagged the Post article to me.]

Meanwhile, at Sony Music. You’ve probably noticed by now — in part because I’ve written about it, but probably because the word has been pushed through the broader entertainment trades — but Sony Music has spent some amount of 2019 piecing together a possible identity in the podcast space, presumably as a response to what’s been going on with the podcast-hungry music streaming platforms and such. There is, of course, the Sony-Davidson-Mayer joint, a.k.a. Three Uncanny Four Productions that was announced months back, and there’s also the seemingly similar venture with the UK producer Renay Richardson announced in October, a.k.a. Broccoli Content.

Sony Music has since followed up by building out its own in-house podcast unit. Interestingly, the unit predominantly consists of Panoply alumni. ~In a memo obtained by~… well, me, and also, you know, other publications, the company highlighted four executive-level hires that it’s made over the past few weeks to set up whatever happens next with its podcast concerns.

The three Panoply alums are: VP of Sales Brittany Hall, who was most recently at Pandora, but was at Panoply during its pre-Megaphone rebranding, back when that company still tried to fight it out on the content business; VP of Revenue Operations Ryan Zach, who has also worked at Acast, Spotify, and GoPro; and VP of Marketing Christy Mirabal, who spent some time at Stitcher as an “evangelist” following her tenure at Panoply.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Laura Mayer, of the Sony-Davidson-Mayer joint, is also a former Panoply employee. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that I, myself, was a Panoply employee, and overlapped with Hall and Mayer.)

The fourth executive-level hire comes from elsewhere, but not too far elsewhere: Emily Rasekh, in the role of SVP of Business Development and Operations, who will oversee the company’s strategy around partnerships, distribution, and monetization as it pertains to its podcast assets. Rasekh was most recently at Entercom, where she was VP of Digital Partnerships, and before that, she was at CBS Radio building that entity’s podcasting effort, which I believe was the whole Play.It brand situation. (CBS Radio was sold off to Entercom in 2017, by the way, in case the connection isn’t super clear.)

So that’s interesting. My primary question now: what, exactly, is the shape of the business that will be run through this unit? You can probably already make some guesses through these hires, but I’ll do the whole wait-and-see thing at this juncture.

Southern California Public Radio has hired a new SVP of Development: Carla Wohl, who joins from USC’s Rossier School of Education, where she was the Associate Dean of External Relations. Wohl is also a former longtime journalist, most notably serving as the west coast correspondent for ABC News between 2000 and 2008.

At SCPR — which contains KPCC, LAist, and the newly launched podcast division LAist Studios — Wohl will be charged with “driving strategy and overseeing implementation of all philanthropic fundraising and development initiatives,” according to the circulated press release. The hire comes almost a year into the tenure of SCPR’s new CEO, Herb Scannell, who joined the organization in January.

IAB President Patrick Dolan to depart organization, wrapping up a nearly thirteen year-long run at the post. A somewhat notable development, insofar as the IAB is a notable concern in podcast-land, which it kinda is, given its relative — and occasionally controversial — influence over analytics standards and measurements. Here’s the press release.

Related… From Digiday:

Last week, Maximum Media, the parent company of Joe.ie,came under fire in Ireland for allegedly using click farms in 2017 to juice the number of listens on an episode of the publisher’s since-discontinued business podcast, The Capital B, sponsored by Allied Irish Banks… The Interactive Advertising Bureau is discussing the case and releasing a statement this week.

Will keep an eye on this.

If you’re interested: Here’s the Spotify company blog post laying out its Year in Podcasting. FWIW, I tend to find these things useful in terms of seeing how these companies see themselves, tell their own story, etc. etc.