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Insider January 27, 2022 — Why Spotify can’t afford to lose Joe Rogan

Neil Young takes on Spotify

Hey, hey. It’s Thursday and nearly February, and I still haven’t finished Yellowjackets. Will I?? We have a bunch to get through, so let’s pick up where we left off with the story that keeps going. 

Spotify picks Joe Rogan over Neil Young

You’ve probably seen this by now, but to catch you up if not: On Monday, Neil Young issued an ultimatum to Spotify: keep Joe Rogan or me. It can’t have both on the service.

“I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines — potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” he wrote in a now-deleted letter, according to Rolling Stone. The chief issue, he said, is Joe Rogan, Spotify’s star podcaster to whom it reportedly paid up to $100 million for an exclusive license to his show. 

Yesterday, Young made good on his word and, along with his record label, removed his music from the service. Young then issued another letter on his website to illuminate how he learned of the issue, thank his label, and encourage others to follow suit. “I sincerely hope that other artists and record companies will move off the Spotify platform and stop supporting Spotify’s deadly misinformation about COVID,” he says.

This marks a critical turning point in Spotify’s company narrative. It’s no longer a music company but one committed to podcasting to the point that it’ll compromise relationships with musical artists to ensure its strategy’s success. And, to be fair, we could have assumed this would play out like it did. Who was Spotify going to pick: a musician whose heyday was decades ago or a zeitgeisty comedian who causes PR headaches but also commands a minimum ad spend of $1 million?

I’m processing the situation in a couple ways, but one is assessing the economic incentives. Spotify’s thinking is obvious. What does losing Young mean? The company’s not financially dependent on his streams or subscribers — Drake or Taylor Swift might be a different story — and barring a mass exodus of subscribers over his missing catalog, things remain business as usual. In fact, the company loses money every time someone streams Young’s songs, which is why Spotify wanted to get into podcasting in the first place. It makes money every time someone listens to Rogan.

On the flip side, I’m not sure what Young’s label, Warner Records, gets out of this. Maybe it wants leverage in a negotiation or to change the conversation around streaming? I’m not sure, but I do assume some sort of politicking is happening behind the scenes that could somehow net a win for Warner. Maybe people listen to more Young elsewhere? Buy some CDs? Unclear. 

Still, the takeaway from the skirmish is clear: Spotify can’t afford to ostracize Rogan or his audience. The company specifically licensed his show with the goal of both converting listeners to the platform and making money through ad sales. JRE has become the lynchpin to its entire podcasting apparatus. 

A source previously told me that if marketers buy ads on Rogan, they have to buy ads on the rest of Spotify’s catalog, too, meaning Rogan’s success brings more advertisers to the rest of Spotify’s investments. Without him, Spotify has Call Her Daddy and Armchair Expert, but neither reaches Rogan’s scale. It’s easy to see why Spotify didn’t cave so easily. 

However, the thing that interests me more is what this says about Spotify’s approach to moderation. When we think about moderation issues on social media platforms, it’s typically one in which algorithms promote and monetize sensational, inflammatory, and problematic content. Up until now, podcasting has mostly remained out of the conversation. The industry relies on word of mouth and curated lists, and the hope is that software recommendations will do more some day in the future. 

We aren’t there yet, though, meaning Spotify not only sided with its star podcaster but is also completely financially motivated to push his content to users and can’t even blame a bad algorithm. 

Maybe this core issue wouldn’t be such a big deal if Spotify wholly communicated its content guidelines. The best we have is a statement I last received in December that it “prohibits content on the platform which promotes dangerous false, deceptive, or misleading content about COVID-19 that may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.” It also added that when “content is flagged for possible violations of our policies, it is thoroughly reviewed by our in-house team and outside experts, if necessary. If that content is found to be in violation of our policies, the appropriate enforcement action is taken.”

Even more oddly, Spotify told The Wall Street Journal yesterday it has taken down 20,000 podcast episodes in violation of “detailed content policies” related to COVID-19. It’s unclear if what I quoted above is the detailed policy or if it goes beyond a sentence. Regardless, the open question is what Spotify considers crossing its line. Has Rogan not crossed it? What did these other podcasters say to be taken down? Also, who is this in-house team? Who’s flagging these violations — software or humans?

I’ve reached out to Spotify for comment and will update if I hear back. 

Ultimately, Spotify might think Rogan doesn’t cross a line, which it needs to clearly say. At the same time, we all can acknowledge its incentive to look the other way or move the moderation line. Spotify cannot afford to lose its star — even if it means tanking its reputation.

Anyway, Spotify employees, I’m here for you if you want to vent or share what you’re thinking because I imagine this is a lot. I’m on email, or DM on Twitter to get my Signal. 

Jad Abumrad leaves Radiolab

Another major public media host is exiting the show they made big. Jad Abumrad announced yesterday that he’s stepping down from hosting Radiolab after nearly 20 years at the helm. Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller will take over. As Nick writes over at Vulture, the move isn’t all that surprising for folks who saw both Abumrad take an extended break in 2016 and other Radiolab producers launch spinoff series, like More Perfect and Dolly Parton’s America. Still, it’s yet another shift in the ongoing story of the changing hosts and faces at the top of various public media-produced programming. It’s been a year. I recommend reading Nick’s piece; he writes about Radiolab’s significance and history more eloquently than you’re going to get from me here.

And then…

SCOOP: Nicole Beemsterboer, in charge of NPR’s seasonal and limited-run podcasts, is leaving and going to Gimlet

A source tipped me earlier this week that Nicole Beemsterboer, NPR’s supervising senior producer on the enterprise storytelling unit, is leaving the company. She oversaw limited-run and seasonal podcasts, like Invisibilia, On Our Watch, and Embedded — essentially big, prestige swings. (Another show, White Lies, was a finalist for a Pulitzer.) She was with the company for 15 years, and her last day is next Friday. 

In a company-wide email, she writes: “I feel incredibly lucky to have worked here, to be a part of journalism that impacts our country and world everyday and to have met and worked with so many inspiring, hard-working people, some of whom have become my dearest friends.”

My source also points out that the Embedded producer who produced the limited series on The Capital Gazette, Chris Benderev, also left this week for This American Life

“The fact that the network couldn’t retain the one person who was the magic behind all of our prestige stuff is really 👀👀👀,” they write of Beemsterboer.

Beemsterboer is joining Gimlet at the end of February, per a memo sent to staff there and obtained by Hot Pod, where she’ll be the head of news and knowledge. 

“One of our big goals for 2022 at Gimlet is to double down on ambitious journalism: more investigative digging, more explanatory deep dives, more revelatory narrative storytelling rooted in reporting,” writes Lydia Polgreen, managing director of Gimlet Media, in the memo. She adds the Gimlet has restructured and will now be organized into four content areas: “news and knowledge, culture and entertainment, crime and justice, and fiction.”

In that same memo, Polgreen also announced that Reyhan Harmanci will take over as the head of society and culture. (The team is still looking for someone to oversee crime and justice.)

Pod People announces its first original podcasts and launches a pitching pipeline

Pod People, a podcast staffing agency and production company, made a couple announcements today. The first is something called the Pod Pipeline, or what it equates to the Black List for podcasts. Essentially, members of its talent pool can pitch podcast ideas, which the team will sift through with the hopes of finding some it can package and pitch to have made. Producers will split the IP and ad revenue 50/50 with Pod People if the team agrees to try and sell the show. 

The second is that the company is launching its first original programming: four shortform podcasts specifically made with TikTok creators. The first show, called Ghosthoney’s Dream Machine, launches today. The format is what interests me here. They’re all 15 minutes or less and scripted, which CEO Rachael King says comes from an interest in shortform more broadly and also catering to these creators’ TikTok audiences who are used to short clips. Each show will have up to two ads, which Studio71 is selling, and again in these shows’ cases, Pod People splits ad revenue 50/50 with the creators after Studio71 takes its cut. (The shows are also staffed by audio talent from the company’s database.) Cool people doin’ cool things! I love to see it.

The people demand an answer on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s podcasts

We’ve kind of covered this one here before, but the press (myself included!) want more answers on where the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle podcasts are. The Sun reports this week that  Spotify execs have “taken matters into their own hands” to ensure audio ends up getting made, while three job listings are live for contract positions at Gimlet to help produce a new Archewell show “featuring the voices of high profile women.”

We just have to commend Gawker for its headline about all this: “Harry and Meghan should be lauded for refusing to work on their podcasts”

Speaking of Spotify podcast deals…

Paul Bae says he’s no longer partnering with Spotify

Paul Bae, co-creator of The Black Tapes, clarified on Twitter yesterday that he walked away from his Spotify deal last year due to a “purely business/creative decision.” Hmmm.

Another long one. I promise I come into this aiming to be short, and it just doesn’t happen. My bad!! Y’all know how to reach me. Aria is here tomorrow!