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Insider December 9, 2021 — Spotify addresses its missing shows

Inside the New York Times Audio app

Thursday, huh. Between a metal Christmas tree burning down and a new one showing up in its place a day later and me myself eating upwards of 10 potato pancakes this week alone, I can tell you it feels like the holiday season. I’ll tease that we have a story lined up for you next week that I’m excited about, as well as some programming planned for the week of Christmas and New Year’s. Stay tuned. As for today, we’re looking at The New York Times’ audio app, radio’s complicated podcasting relationship, and, um, Salesforce getting into video podcasts? Off we go.

BREAKING: iHeartMedia’s podcast team unionizes
This is news fresh off the Bloomberg presses: iHeartMedia’s podcast team is forming a union with the Writer’s Guild of America East — the same union that represents Parcast, Gimlet Media, and The Ringer. (Disclosure: editorial teams at Vox Media, including The Verge, are also unionized with WGAE.) The proposed bargaining unit consists of 125 producers, researchers, writers, editors, and hosts. The union is focused on “pay disparities and opaque decision-making,” per Bloomberg. The union sent a letter to management today requesting voluntary recognition. This caps off a year of broader movement in the podcast union space, as I noted above. I’ve reached out to iHeart for comment and will let you all know tomorrow if they have a statement.

The New York Times’ audio app lands (in beta)

The New York Times is no longer solely in the podcast content game. On Tuesday, the publication launched its audio-only iPhone app, New York Times Audio, in beta with an exclusive Axios piece detailing the thoughts behind it. To give you the basics: the app places the Times’ podcast network with shows like The Daily and Still Processing alongside its acquired content from Serial Productions, as well partner content from This American Life. The app also includes Audm content from partner publishers, like New York Magazine and Rolling Stone, plus new shortform audio segments. All the acquisitions and deals and effort in one place!

I’m part of the beta group and played around with the app a bit yesterday. A couple things immediately stood out. I enjoy that the app changes daily with fresh highlights. For example, there’s a dedicated section about Sex and The City today because the new series just premiered. The timely touch might get me listening to something I otherwise wouldn’t have. The app also comes with a ~Times talent~ vibe. A section of the browse tab is dedicated to following what specific writers are saying. That’s neat and something I haven’t seen other apps prioritize. I also, though, don’t know if people tend to interact with audio like this

That all said, some other areas need work. Topic search can be hit or miss right now — typing in “New York City” offers results, whereas “Game of Thrones” doesn’t offer much of relevance, apart from shows where a star came on to talk about something unrelated to the show — which is probably just a factor of the limited Times-adjacent catalog. I also couldn’t figure out how to download an episode for offline listening, although the app settings allow you to turn auto downloads on and off and say whether you only want it to happen over Wi-Fi, so clearly, you can either do it or it’s coming. Also, following a show, like This American Life, means older episodes might populate first in your library. The Axios story mentions the team wants to prioritize relevant content to the moment and day’s news, but I don’t know why an episode from 1998 about “death to wacky” is the first episode I see from that show. Of course, the app is still in beta and the reason folks are using it now is to provide feedback, so I imagine changes with be swift.

Oh, and one more final thing I should note — the Axios story offers us a data tidbit: The Daily has been downloaded 3.2 billion times, per a spokesperson, and more than 20 million people listen to the Times’ podcast content monthly. 

The case of the missing Spotify shows

Yesterday, James Cridland over at Podnews pointed out the bevy of high-profile podcast deals that Spotify has made over the years — Kim Kardashian West, Ava DuVernay, DC Comics, among others — and the fact that no shows from the seven deals he lists have actually been released. The Daily Mail also published a story specifically wondering about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s missing slate. In that case, the couple released a holiday podcast episode at the end of last year and said more programming would follow this year. Nothing has surfaced. Former Pivot producer Rebecca Sananes went over to Archewell Audio, Harry and Meghan’s podcast company, as the head of audio in August, so I imagine her hiring is directly related to them getting serious about releasing these programs.

I reached out to Spotify to see if they had anything to add about all the speculation. I got this email comment back from spokeswoman Rosa Oh:

“This year alone Spotify has released more than 70 new series across our platform and we have a number of new shows slated to roll out in Q1. Many of our agreements are announced at the deal stage and it’s important to recognize that like any production house or studio, building an audio arm takes time and requires significant planning, from hiring the right audio experts with audio specific technical skills, to pre-production, writing, development, casting and recording. We are heavily invested in premium highly produced content that is unmatched across the industry and we look forward to bringing some of these diverse creators to the platform starting in Q1 of 2022.”

I don’t want to speculate too much here, but my hunch is that, yes, there might be drama behind the scenes, but less of a tearing-up-a-Spotify-contract drama and more of the existential “does this audio actually sound good” variety. Making audio is hard, and I imagine locking down A-list talent also comes with its challenges — we aren’t in the throes of the pandemic where every star is sitting on their phone looking for something to do. Anyway, like I said, just a guess. But I also fully recognize that pushed deadlines are a bad look, and geez, give me the Kim Kardashian podcast already. If you have more to add to this conversation, you know where to find me.

Speaking of Pivot

Salesforce will distribute video podcasts, apparently

For those of us who missed it, Salesforce launched its own streaming service, of course called Salesforce Plus, in September. It’s free and centered on business content. Yesterday, the company, along with Vox Media, which owns this newsletter, announced that they’ll be teaming up to turn Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher’s Pivot into a video series. The platform receives four segments exclusively for 72 hours, per Adweek, after which point Vox can do what it wishes with the videos. The segments will start rolling out next year. I find this deal interesting solely because we talk here about YouTube and its relationship to video podcasting, and to see a popular show go to Salesforce is simply the twist I didn’t see coming! 

I do wonder, however, what Vox will do with the videos once that exclusivity window is up. Monetize on YouTube? Put them up on New York Magazine and sell ads around it? Separately, Pivot is also becoming a conference in February called Pivot MIA, which also intrigues me. Podcasts often go on tour, but a full conference built around one in our fresh 2022 year, that’s bold, especially for a conference that costs over $5,000 per ticket. (I guess this is where I should say I’m a Pivot listener and am separately into these developments for that reason — just laying it all out here.)

A quick one in relation to YouTube…

YouTube CEO is “excited” about podcasting, welcome 

Marketplace interviewed YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki last week, and during the interview, they ever-so-briefly touched on podcasts. Here’s the relevant quote:

“We’re excited about podcasting, for sure. But that’s a place where there’s also many different companies. But we do think it’s a good opportunity for people who are producing podcasting to generate revenue, have more distribution. We crossed 50 million subscribers for our YouTube Music and Premium service, and so we know that users are paying for the service, and the more we can offer more podcasts there, we think that will be a really valuable service for our users.”

Remember that YouTube hired a head of podcasts, Kai Chuk, and started offering free background listening on YouTube Music in Canada, which I expect to come stateside and elsewhere. What exactly is YouTube’s plan, and how does it differ from how podcasts monetize there now? That I still don’t know.

iHeart turned music stations into podcast stations and then back into music stations

I’ve always been interested in how iHeart harnesses the T-shirt launcher that is its radio stations, and this week, Podcast Business Journal notes that one Pennsylvania station made the switch to all-podcasting-content, all-the-time in 2019. The station is now, two years later, switching back to music — oldies, to be specific. I reached out to Conal Byrne, CEO at the iHeart Digital Audio Group, to ask if the strategy around podcasts on the radio isn’t panning out as expected. He says the company changed the programming of multiple radio stations, actually, and in all these cases, the choice to make them podcasting 24/7 wasn’t to net a huge audience but rather for “testing the technology.”

“Two of them we flipped back to a different format, but that’s not because podcasting wasn’t crushing it, these are very small markets where it’s almost our version of, let’s use a small market with not a lot of audience to see what it takes to 24/7 program podcasts on the radio.” 

He says the company continues to play podcasts on the radio. And that’s all I got.

What will happen to Chris Cuomo’s podcast?

I normally wouldn’t chime in on a newscaster being fired and the subsequent fallout from it, but unfortunately for all of us here, there’s an audio angle. The first: after CNN fired Chris Cuomo over aiding his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and trying to sniff out forthcoming alleged sexual harassment claims against Andrew, Chris has preemptively quit his SiriusXM radio show. He did so on Twitter, and you can read the note here. Second: Chris also hosts a podcast, The Handoff, with Don Lemon, which, according to Apple, is among the top five subscription podcasts on the platform. The show hasn’t published in over two weeks. Curious. I reached out to CNN to find out what the fate of the show might be and haven’t heard anything back. Curious.

That’s it today, folks! Thanks, as always, for reading. Aria will be here tomorrow, and I’m back Tuesday. Ta-ta.