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Insider: January 3, 2020

- AB5 goes into effect - Spotify and Margins - Nieman Lab Predictions Round-up... and more!

AB5, California’s gig work law, went into effect on Jan 1. Buckle up, it’s gonna be messy. We’ve already spent some time discussing how this bill might/will adversely impact freelance creative workers and journalists operating in the state, and there’s been some movement on the issue since that write-up, the latest being a decision by a federal judge to exempt truck drivers from the law that could be a harbinger of similar developments to come. Here’s the San Francisco Chronicle write-up on that specific event. And as a reminder, a freelance journalist group has already filed a suit to make amendments to the law. Here’s the Hollywood Reporter piece on that. Meanwhile, if you need a re-up on the bigger picture, here’s a good broad run-down by the New York Times, which dropped on Dec 31 and touches on the myriad other kinds of professions that might be affected by the bill’s relative ambiguity.

Margins. ICYMI, the New York Times pubbed an interview with Jimmy Iovine — the legendary music producer, formerly of Apple — as part of its Best of 2019 package, and there’s a bit in the conversation that’s a neat summation of the value logic around the push by Spotify (and other music services) into the podcasting space:

What’s the streaming business’s problem on the horizon?

Margin. It doesn’t scale. At Netflix, the more subscribers you have, the less your costs are. In streaming music, the costs follow you.

And the streaming music services are utilities — they’re all the same. Look at what’s working in video. Disney has nothing but original stuff. Netflix has tons of original stuff. But the music streaming services are all the same, and that’s a problem.

What happens when something is commoditized is that it becomes a war of price. If you can get the exact same thing next door cheaper, somebody is going to enter this game and just lower the price. Spotify’s trying with podcasts. Who knows? Maybe that will work.

In other words: a pursuit of differentiation, grounded in better cost for value.

This might come in handy: Here’s a rundown from Gizmodo of all the films, books, and — most importantly for us — music that have entered the public domain as of January 1.

Revolving Door: Irene Noguchi, the executive producer of Vox’s Today Explained, is heading to Politico to serve as its head of audio.

hink I recently mentioned — somewhere, maybe on Twitter, I can’t quite find the actual statement — that I’m not a super big fan of prediction columns (at least, not anymore). Some of this is a personal distaste for what I’ve generally read as vainglorious attempts at self-marketing, but it’s also partly rooted in a certain literalism in the way I’ve come to approach the world these days: no one really knows the future will bring.

There are, of course, exceptions to my distaste. One such exception (other than low-stakes sports predictions) is the annual Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism package — to which I’ve contributed in the past — which I admire quite a bit for two things. The first reason, and this is obvious, is because I’m affiliated with the Nieman folks, seeing as how they syndicate this newsletter, and besides, I sincerely believe they’re exceedingly good at a thing that many are exceedingly bad at (i.e. media reporting/media blogging). The second reason has to do with the execution of those packages themselves: the compilation of entries they pull together is often thoughtful, surprising, and granular in deeply satisfying ways. Their approach leans hard into what really good prediction packages tend to actually be: a vivid collection of hopes, beliefs, and philosophical grapplings derived from the personal experiences of various individuals who live out deeply felt lives within the community that these “predictions” are being made about.

Over the years, Nieman Lab’s prediction packages have come to cultivate a strong podcasting contingent, which is probably a testament to its effective tracking of the signs of the times. So I figured I’d do the thing where I’d highlight the podcast-specific entries, pull out what I think are the most interesting chunks, and sling some add-on takes.

In other words, thought I’d do a blog, as the olds say.

Here we go:

Felix Salmon, Chief Financial Correspondent at Axios: “Podcasts are becoming a huge business now, and Spotify is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to topple Apple as the big dog in the space. To that end, they’re going to launch something that radio has had for decades but that has never existed in podcasting format: a simple news channel.”

This sounds about right to me, but I think the Daily Drive playlist — which Salmon singled out as a test product in this direction — is actually the thing itself. At least, in my mind, based on my interpretation of how the Playlist is Spotify’s organizing atomic unit of content. My sense is that the Daily Drive, and however it will be refined or iterated upon in the future, is as close to the “news channel” experience as you’re ever going to get on Spotify.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, CEO of Lantigua-Williams & Co: “Podcast hobbyists will experience 2020 as the year of reckoning. While some will be happy to produce an episode whenever they can find the time, others will leave full-time jobs and risk it all in podcasting. They’ll borrow money, drain their savings, and take a creative leap for a chance to be as financially fulfilled as they are artistically satisfied by making shows they love.”

Embedded in Lantigua-Williams’ contribution is the process of Bifurcation that we’ve long discussed in this newsletter: podcast-as-an-extension-of-Blogging on the one hand, podcast-as-the-future-of-Radio on the other. What follows from this idea, then, is the sense of a need for two separate on-demand audio economies to accommodate this trajectory — and more importantly, for those two things to be contextualized and understood by all participating parties as two separate entities.

Joni Deutsch, On-demand Content and Audience Engagement Manager for WFAE: “2020 will undoubtedly be a big podcast year for movie stars, presidential candidates, and the like. But we can’t let this commercialized, hyper-celebrity noise drown out the diverse voices, perspectives, and stories that can and should call podcasting home.”

The line I keep hearing — though, granted, it’s a line that comes from folks with a vested interest — is that podcasting isn’t a zero-sum game. Put another way: you can have an ecosystem that can accommodate an in-flow of Big Names without pushing out creators that don’t have Big Names yet.

I am, of course, dubious on this point, because everybody’s still largely sharing the same money pipe. And I, for one, don’t really think you can have it both ways without significant restructuring, advocacy, and organized effort around protecting, elevating, and/or differentiating the grassroot podcast creative community in the face of this influx. This is connected to the thing about Bifurcation: we probably need different generative economies and systems for creators at different levels, especially if they’re going to end up competing in the same distribution chain. I suppose the appropriate comparison point here would be something like how indie films and studios films relate to each other within the broader film ecosystem. Or books, whatever.

Jake Shapiro, CEO of RadioPublic and PodFund: “To date, investments in podcast tech has understandably been concentrated at the bottom of the stack (hosting) and the top (players/apps)… The middle layer of marketing tech is missing, and my prediction for 2020 is we will see a wave of investment into the services and tools to manage the top and middle of the funnel for audience growth and engagement.”

Be sure to check out the rest of Shapiro’s analysis on why, exactly, podcast investments has historically played out this way. For the most part, I think he’s right. But also, the investment and problem environment is probably going to radically change over the next two quarters, and we begin to see what Spotify’s longer-term game plan beyond distribution looks like…

Eric Nuzum, Co-Founder of Magnificent Noise: “2019 will be remembered as the year that legacy media gave a big bear hug to podcasting…and some squeezed a bit too hard. 2019 was the year that the same mindset that decimated commercial radio now considers podcasting its ‘birthright.’ It was also the year that the low-calorie, short-term-benefits worldview that hobbled cable, newspapers, and network television descended on podcasting, offering hyped visions of how to grow the industry using the same tactics that failed others. In truth, the cumulative effect is like the arrival of a swarm of locusts, consuming everything they encounter before moving on to the next fertile field.”

My understanding is that Nuzum is a bit of a controversial figure in some corners of the podcast community, but for what it’s worth, his reading of 2019 resonates with me.

Also, Nuzum begins his entry with the provocation that there wasn’t a breakout podcast hit in 2019. This is also consistent with my interpretation of the year, but I don’t think I’m as perturbed about that fact as he is. On the one hand, you have up years and you have down years, and on the other hand, as I tried to get across in my Best Of 2019 list for Vulture, there was still a ton of good shit nonetheless.

None of those came from the avenging commercial radio contingent, though. Then again, I’ve been told that I’m an out-of-touch elitist snob that doesn’t know what actual people listen to, so I suppose you’re within your rights to tell me to fuck off.

Christina Kim, Producer of NPR and WBUR’s Here & Now: “Podcasts and other audio and news sources are filling in the gaps where public broadcasting has failed by directly defining and speaking to their unique audiences. And while it’s easy to absolve public media’s responsibility here by saying their needs are being met elsewhere, 2020 is the year we say that’s not good enough and find radical ways to live up to our shared mission of service.”

You know I always have time for this line of argument.

Tamar Charney, Managing Editor at NPR One: “While this move to ‘bespoke’ gives journalism organizations powerful ways to delight listeners and readers, it means we have to find new ways to create shared understandings and a common set of facts. It’s one thing for people to adorn themselves with the luxury of a bespoke suit. It is another if our basic understanding of the world is stratified by personalization into information haves with their bespoke news and have-nots with their mass market news. Hopefully, this will be the year we hold ourselves accountable for creating the audience-centered news experiences our listeners and readers want — while still providing all of American society the knowledge and understanding that is needed for our democracy to function.”

So, this is the clearest articulation I’ve heard of how a problem that’s affecting the rest of Digital Media is specifically affecting podcasting, radio, and the on-demand audio world.

One of the more interesting side-implications of Charney’s piece — which is mostly about personalization, but is also subsequently about the expanding frontier of consumptive choice — is the notion that as pre-existing music platforms take over larger shares of non-music/talk audio distribution, it will also bring with it these concerns about cultural and informational fragmentation. Not that podcasting was some unified or mono-cultured landscape, of course, but the push into that direction seems accelerated with the melding together of these worlds…

Brenda Salinas, Audio Content Strategist at Google: “If we can treat MP3 files like text, we can link between them. What might it be like to fall into an audio rabbit hole? What would it look like to have programming that expands and contracts depending on how much time a listener has or where they are in their day? With better personalization, what’s news to me might be slightly different than what’s news to you. You used to have one giant antenna for your entire audience. Now, as a broadcaster, you can have many antennas for many audiences.”

… and, of course, you have Google looking to push the point even deeper.

Kerri Hoffman, CEO of PRX: “Podcasting is built on the open values of the web: open and free. This is an important cornerstone of journalism in the public interest. But excessive consolidation or the outsized influence of gatekeepers could stifle growth. Similarly, advances in ad tech could challenge notions of consumer privacy. In order to keep an open invitation to new audiences — and increasingly, as the data suggests, to news consumers — now’s the time to set standards rooted in strong values that will allow the medium to continue healthily.”

Last word goes to Hoffman, here, highlighting what is now the fundamental tension in this ecosystem.

Alright, those are all the podcast and on-demand-audio-specific submissions. (For now, anyway, I think the package is still making additions.) But that’s not to say there isn’t significant value to be found in the non-podcast-specific entries — it’s all the same bag of worms at the end of the day. Go check the whole thing out, read up, and I’m here if you wanna spin some yarn.