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Insider: February 7, 2020

Merch update. A small follow on to the piece I published in Tuesday’s newsletter about the options open to podcasters wanting to sell merch as a means of supporting their shows. I had some great feedback from readers, mostly on the point about factoring in the cost of your own time when it comes to this brand extension, which is definitely something I want to write about more in the future.

I concluded that there were broadly two ways to go with merch: either you dropship via a third party service and accept that revenue will be low, or you DIY and devote a lot of your time to going to the post office. However, we got some messages suggesting that there is a third way, in the form of TopatoCo, a company started by cartoonist Jeffrey Rowland in 2007 and which grew out of the need that internet comics artists had in the early 2000s to sell their stuff in an ethical and well remunerated way.

TopatoCo now also handles merchandise for some podcasts, as well as musicians, writers and artists. The company’s mission (which you can read more about here) is to help creators build sustainable careers, and as such they say that they “keep the lowest commissions in the industry”. Unfortunately Rowland hadn’t responded to my request for an interview by the time of writing, so I haven’t been able to unpack that statement in more detail yet or see how the split compares with other companies that offer merch production and shipping.

However, from the conversations I’ve been able to have with those who sell via TopatoCo, it seems like the key factor in this model is scale. All of the networks and shows that have merch listed for sale on the platform are pretty sizeable: the list includes Maximum Fun, Savage Lovecast, Reply All, Lore and more. It seems like the way TopatoCo squares that circle of keeping item and admin costs down while also not generating a ton of surplus inventory is to partner with shows that have a fairly large existing audience.

Indeed, the website makes this explicit. “TopatoCo is exclusively for established, original, independent internet creators with a proven record of solid updates and a considerable existing audience,” it says. Which means that it’s a great solution for those who fall into that category — and since I wasn’t able to speak with the company, I don’t yet know exactly what the threshold is, I’m afraid, nor how “independent” is defined — but it isn’t a service that is available to the vast majority of podcasters with smaller followings who still want to sell merch.

hart topper. Ted Cruz has an impeachment podcast, and in the last week he’s been very excited about how it’s doing in the charts, if his Twitter feed is anything to judge by. The Texas Senator has been retweeting news articles about how his show Verdict “is surpassing ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ and the New York Times’ ‘The Daily’” in the Apple Podcast charts. (That quote is from Politico, by the way, but there are a lot of other examples of similar phrasing out there.)

Now, Hot Pod readers will be well acquainted with the vagaries of the Apple Podcasts charts, and how it’s really a measure of “hotness” and “newness” in a particular country as opposed to an overall measure of the total volume of listening. It’s also fairly standard for mainstream media coverage and PR campaigns to completely ignore this and treat it like an all-known barometer of global popularity.

However, this headline in the WSJ caught my attention the other day. It feels like one thing for me to roll my eyes at chart topping boasts in press releases, and quite another for a politician to use it as an attack line. Just something else to think about as we consider the role that Apple plays in podcasting in 2020.All ears. The Q4 RAJAR data for UK radio listening has been released, and it shows that both the share of digital radio and of live radio being streamed online or via apps is up significantly. Both smart speaker usage and in car listening also increased. The big story from the release so far concerns BBC Radio 1, which has fallen below nine million weekly listeners (to 8.8 million) for the first time since records began. Since this is the station aimed at younger audiences, it’s just another manifestation of that problem the BBC has attracting younger people to its output that I’ve written about before.Speaking of… As I suggested was likely last week, the UK government has now launched an official inquiry into the possible decriminalisation of the license fee. This public consultation is the first step towards removing the criminal sanctions from non payment. The Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan framed the decision as being about protecting vulnerable people from needless enforcement, but after Boris Johnson’s hints on the campaign trail back in December, plenty are already viewing this as part of the government’s downsizing agenda for the BBC.Not strictly audio, but interesting all the same: Google has revealed for the first time how much revenue advertising on YouTube brings in — $15 billion in 2019, around 10 percent of the company’s total revenue. One employee said that this felt like a “seminal moment” in the relationship between the platform and its creators, who now know how big (or small!) a slice they’re getting of the pie.Ellie time. The National Magazine Awards finalists have been announced, and the five nominees in the podcasting category are: Reply All for “Feral Hogs”, Longreads for Bundyville, the NYT for 1619, the NYT magazine for Still Processing and ProPublica/WNYC for Trump, Inc. Congrats to all involved; you can find the specific episodes being honoured in this Twitter thread.It’s a vibe. I was really interested in this post Super Bowl analysis by Dieter Bohn at the Verge, which argues that the different tech companies are shooting for very different aesthetics with their voice assistants. Amazon used Ellen DeGeneres to advertise Alexa and emphasised how everyday and ordinary it has become to use the assistant. Google, meanwhile, went for a nostalgia-laden, heartstring-tugging spot designed to appeal to our emotional connection with the past. Apple, Bohn points out, has also used this approach recently in a holiday commercial for the iPad.

It’s particularly worth being aware of these techniques in the audio space, I think, given that providers are increasingly being incentivised to use them as a distribution platform for news, and the assistants that guide listeners to the packages are presented as “neutral”, for the most part. Of course, there’s no such thing as neutral when it comes to news or indeed tech, but the way these tools are presented and sold to consumers is relevant to our industry, I think.