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Insider: January 8, 2021 — Follow-up to L’affaire Caliphate, Notes on Twitter and Breaker

Follow-up to L’affaire Caliphate. Quick one here. Yesterday, Radiolab published a note on its website in response to the renewed chatter around Andy Mills, who last worked on the show five years ago. A good deal of the allegations recently published over Twitter against Mills spanned his time at the show.

An excerpt from the note:

In the past few weeks, there have been a lot of conversations about the tolerance of harassment and bad behavior in our industry and in particular of a person who worked on our show five years ago, Andy Mills.

The Radiolab team wants to say to the people who were hurt, to anyone who has ever felt unwelcome at our show, and to the industry we helped shape: we are listening. We hate that this happened and we apologize to those we failed. At the time, show leadership initiated a response from WNYC to address Andy’s behavior, but it didn’t happen fast enough and it didn’t do enough.

We can’t change the past, but we can promise you that we are all holding this show, and each other, accountable for making sure that no person has to experience anything like that again.

You can read the full post here.

I don’t think this will be the last of such statements to be published from organizations within the audio industry. Hit me up if you know what I’m talking about.ICYMI. Neon Hum Media is organizing an eight-week training program for “people from underrepresented groups who want to become podcast editors.” Applications are open now, eight people will be selected to enroll, and one of those people will eventually be hired into the company. More here.Revolving Door.

  • Got this note yesterday: “Joy Fowlkes has joined The Gernert Company as a Podcast Agent, representing TGC authors and their work in the podcast space, and assisting them in developing original podcast properties. In addition, she’ll build and represent a list of podcast-native talent.”
  • Let’s call this a historical revolving door. Jesse Burton, who used to run original music podcasts at Spotify, left the audio streaming platform a while back to launch his own podcast production company, called Awfully Nice. Through the company, Burton secured a first look deal with his former employer — and the first project from that deal, The Messenger, dropped this week.
  • Missed this earlier: Mikel Ellcessor, an independent producer who has been credited as the co-founder of WNYC Studios, has joined Supercast as Partnerships Lead.

Got a new job? Tell me, would love to Let The People Know.Notes on Twitter and Breaker. So, I briefly linked to the “Twitter has acquired Breaker” story in Tuesday’s newsletter, but I go back to it for a hot second because there’s some stuff here that’s interesting to me.

First and foremost, though, I wanna say: I don’t see this as a podcast story, but a story about social media and audio, which in my estimation are two very separate threads. I feel compelled to make that distinction at this point because I’ve seen a few underbaked takes floating around about this story, which I think overemphasize the relationship between social media companies and podcasting as we currently understand it when discussing this development. That said, I should also say: I probably would have applied that same level of emphasis, say, four years. In fact, this development would’ve been a biiiig excitable headline for Hot Pod circa 2017. It’s just that the podcast, tech, and media worlds look a whole lot different now, you know?

Anyway, let’s back up and go over the facts. On Tuesday, the team behind Breaker, the third-party podcast app, announced that it was joining Twitter and that the app would be shutting down as a result. (The announcement also included instructions to help shows hosted on Breaker migrate away to other hosting services, as it should.) The interesting nitty-gritty would later be found in the follow-up coverage. Here’s a link to the TechCrunch write-up, which noted a few things: (1) it raised how the deal feels modest, given the unannounced price (as is typically the case with acqui-hire situations; see also Apple’s relatively quiet pickups of Scout FM and Pop-Up Archive); (2) at least Breaker founders Erik Berlin and Leah Culver, plus designer Emma Lundin, are heading over to the Big Blue Bird; and (3) once at Twitter, the team will be working on Spaces, the platform’s audio-based virtual chat room feature thing that’s largely thought to be a competitor to Clubhouse.

Okay, so. This story makes me think about two things.

The first is what it says about third-party podcast apps today. Now, quick note on my use of the term “third-party” here: I generally use it to describe independent or venture-backed podcast apps that aren’t owned or affiliated with a significantly bigger company, like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. (I guess you can nowadays lump Pocket Casts in there too, given that it’s now owned by a consortium of public radio entities.)

So, Breaker first launched in early 2017, back during a time when Apple Podcasts was the undisputed center of the podcast universe and when there was still a feeling that you could raise venture money to build a new podcast app and maybe that might go somewhere. Breaker came into the scene with a social discovery-oriented gambit: it sought to actualize the social graph as a formidable frontier for show discovery. The way I see it, folks would theoretically want to use Breaker because (a) they could learn about new stuff they’d want to consume by easily checking out what other folks were listening to, and (b) Breaker would presumably provide a better listening experience than the alternatives. Put another way, one way I read the premise is to see it as an attempt to harvest something that naturally happens in the wild: it’s long been identified that people tend to learn about podcasts from other people and on social media. The point was to bottle all that up.

Breaker has an exit now, but it doesn’t look like they weren’t able to go very far with their thesis around social features and podcast discovery. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s a matter of a faulty thesis. I just think running a third-party podcast app business is an untenable position, perhaps even back when they launched. From the outside looking in, Breaker’s absorption by Twitter feels closer to the reality of what has long faced third-party podcast apps and what is increasingly the fundamental challenge of those apps. And that challenge is this: who is really going to pick up a new third-party app to listen to podcasts when Apple Podcasts already comes bundled with your iPhone, when Spotify is increasingly becoming a first-option for many across iPhone and Android, and when there already exists a decent batch of further alternatives like Pocket Cast, Overcast, and Stitcher? (We’ll see about Amazon Music or Audible.) Is there a thesis — whether it’s social discovery, exclusive programming (a la Luminary, I guess), or something else — strong enough to overcome the legitimate challenges of app user acquisition in 2020 and pulling away from the default? I, for one, highly doubt that any such thesis exists, and I’m pretty confident in believing that the podcast ecosystem, perhaps back in 2017 and especially now, is no country for new third-party apps.

Here’s the second thing. I’m not sure about the whole “social audio” thing, and I have a feeling that most contemporary emphasis on social audio being the “hot thing” in and of itself is missing the bigger plot. Social audio — that is, a construct in which users interface with each other on a one-to-many basis using audio — isn’t desirable in and of itself. Recall: Twitter Spaces isn’t the only audio-related daliance that app has launched in recent months; in June, the platform rolled out the ability for users to tweet out audio recordings, which was something nobody really asked for and appears to be something that didn’t particularly go anywhere. Also recall: Anchor started out as what in hindsight seemed like a Twitter Spaces or Clubhouse equivalent, and now that its team and tech has been sucked up by Spotify, that apparatus seems to largely be oriented around “creator tools,” as opposed to the social part.

The way I see it, “social audio” isn’t the point. Which is to say, it’s not a sufficient condition to be effective. Rather, it should be thought of a rough mechanism for some larger function. Consider Clubhouse, which I’ve generally hesitated from considering, given its obvious focal point for narcissism among a certain powerful set of tech elites, its unwillingness to preemptively take matters of moderation, toxicity, and on-platform abuse seriously, and not to mention the very notion of New VC-Powered Social Platform in an age when we’re so cognizant of social media’s intimate relations with misinformation, data exploitation, and harm.

But I do think Clubhouse is interesting in terms of how it illustrates something about the way we think about feature innovations. The heartbeat of Clubhouse — at least, from my understanding on the outside looking in — isn’t social audio per se, but how it weaponizes social audio for the purposes of creating, in its specific case, what some would recognize as the pleasure of insular, elite spaces.

Anyway, maybe this is all basic shit and already well-observed elsewhere, but it’s something I’m thinking about. Meanwhile, I recommend this Vulture read on Clubhouse as a follow-up.

Relatedly, my original idea for this column was to interview the founders of Breaker about their time running the app, but the Twitter press manager denied the request. Oh well.Quote of the Day. “Podcasts can serve as ‘an entry point and a point of legitimation’ for unfounded claims.” That’s UCLA associate professor Dr. Sarah Roberts, cited in a piece for The Guardian by Ariel Bogle, a journalist and analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank. The problem of podcasting as a vector of disinformation is something I’ve been tracking for a while now, and this piece seems to suggest that this particular issue is steadily making its way out into the mainstream conversation about podcasting.Next Week. Okay, last thing. I’m working on a 2021 Preview column for next Tuesday’s issue, going over 7-10 stories, trends, themes, and questions that strike me about the year ahead in podcasting. Let me know what stories, trends, themes, and questions you’re thinking about.