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Insider: July 22, 2021 — Substack and Booksmart Studios, Clubhouse moves out of beta, Misc notes

Substack’s first Audio “Pro deal,” and the public introduction of Booksmart Studios. The announcement came by way of Axios’ Sara Fischer, whose exclusive report on the matter was framed with the following headline: “Substack makes first major podcast investment.”

The recipient, as mentioned at the top, is Booksmart Studios, the new podcast venture that will, among other things, be home to Bob Garfield, who was fired from WNYC in May as “a result of a pattern of behavior that violated NYPR’s anti-bullying policy.” At Booksmart, Garfield will host a new podcast, called — wait for it — Bully Pulpit. Just a quick reminder at this point that Garfield’s participation in this new venture was first made public mere weeks after his dismissal from WNYC.

Okay, so, “Substack makes first major podcast investment” is a sticky headline, but you would do well with further unpacked context. According to Fischer’s report, Booksmart is receiving “a six-figure advance from Substack to launch the service,” and the best way to read this is to see that the newsletter publishing platform — which has also been providing tools for paid audio publishing since early 2019, though that feature has remained fairly rudimentary — is doing with a new audio team what it has been doing with newsletter writers for quite some time now: giving up-front deals as an incentive to use (and by doing so, evangelize by proxy) their platform.

If you’re one of those Very Online media people, you’re probably familiar with the hubbub and discourse of the venture-backed and a16z-affiliated Substack’s deployment of such advances. They’ve been striking these deals with a growing cadre of prominent and not-so-prominent writers for some time now; a number of these arrangements (referred to as “Substack Pro deals”) can be quite large, as in the oft-cited case of Matt Yglesias, the blogger and co-founder, who was paid $250,000 to mitigate the risk of his first year on Substack in exchange for 85% of his paid subscription revenue generated through the platform in that first year. (It’s my understanding that from the second year onward, the arrangement reverts to the normal Substack offering in which the platform simply takes the standard 10% of generated revenue, the same it would with anybody else, with no further risk-mitigating payouts.) Where the hubbub tends to begin is the fact that the platform has attracted use by fairly controversial individuals, like Glenn Greenwald and Graham Linehan — also, to some extent, Yglesias — which ended up marking the newsletter publishing platform with a certain pugnacious frisson. It’s a whole thing, and if you really haven’t been keeping up with this particular strand of brouhaha, go here and here. (There are also, I should note, broader frustrations and anxieties surrounding Substack that go well beyond the Pro deal stuff, and for quick insight into that, go here and here.)

Now, that’s a lot of background, but it should bring you up to adequate speed to better comprehend the shape of this particular audio development.

So, Booksmart. The arrangement for Substack’s “investment” in the emerging audio venture is presumably the same as with any other Pro deal craft for writers — up-front cash plus 85% of the generated revenue for the first year. While the specific advance sum was not disclosed in Axios report, it did note that it was enough to “cover the salaries of the two full-time co-founders and their five part-time producers and hosts.”

Anyway, as mentioned earlier, Booksmart is notable for Bob Garfield’s participation, among other things, and I figure you’d probably want to have a better sense of the rest of this venture beyond just that one guy, so I’ll reprint how the new network was described in a press release sent to me earlier this week:

Michael Vuolo, a former producer of WNYC’s Peabody Award-winning On The Media and Matthew Schwartz, a Murrow award-winner and NPR contributor, are partnering with Substack to launch the podcast network Booksmart Studios. The company’s mission is to make the learned and erudite both entertaining and accessible — with rigorous journalism, incisive analysis and wry humor. Booksmart believes that intelligence should be unapologetic, and conventional wisdom interrogated.

The network’s lineup at launch includes five podcasts with a mix of new and established shows and an all-star roster of talent. The first three podcasts, Banished with Amna Khalid, Lexicon Valley with John McWhorter and Bully Pulpit with Bob Garfield, are launching in July with two more shows to follow later this summer, and additional content to be announced in the coming months.

Take from all that what you will.

A few more notes, for the gossip-curious.

Firstly, there’s a quote in the Axios report by Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie that’s got my inbox buzzing: “We’re in the very early days of podcasting on Substack, but some podcasts are already making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year through the platform.” Keep in mind that this grouping may well include Substack newsletter-first businesses with podcasts as an add-on, as opposed to just thinking about the grouping in terms of podcast-first Substacks. Also: one of the examples of “podcast-first Substacks” cited in the Axios piece is Time To Say Goodbye (which I love, by the way), and it’s germane to know that the direct revenue engine of that podcast is powered by both Substack and Patreon. That’s a thing that can happen.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that Substack isn’t the first paid publishing platform to provide a first-year advance to an audio team. I’ve heard that, at the very least, the paid podcasting platform Supporting Cast has been doing a similar thing for some time now — they’ve just been a lot more quiet with it, as far as I can tell.

Thirdly, you might notice the presence of Lexicon Valley, the podcast about language that was once hosted by Garfield and Vuolo for Slate, before McWhorter took over as host. It’s my understanding that Slate owns the podcast feed while Garfield and Vuolo own the brand, which is why you’ll find old episodes of Lexicon Valley in what Slate is now calling Spectacular Vernacular, which is a new podcast about language that Slate is launching in its place with hosts Ben Zimmer and Nicole Holliday. This, obviously, can be directly connected to all the conversations about IP of late.

Finally, speaking of McWhorter, he made an appearance on the recent Radiolab spin-off, The Vanishing of Harry Pace, where he could be heard singing showtunes.

Correction Note: In the original version of the column on Substack’s deal with Booksmart, I noted that part of the brouhaha sparked around the newsletter publishing platform was rooted in them striking “Pro deals” with fairly controversial figures like Glenn Greenwald and Graham Linehan. Turns out, this was a misunderstanding on my part: Greenwald and Linehan were not recipients of Pro deals, and the brouhaha seemed more attached to their general usage of the platform.

Clubhouse moves out of beta, removes waitlist system. Plus it has a new landing page. I suppose this qualifies as the social audio app’s “official” launch, and the company threw out a bunch of stats to mark the occasion yesterday. From the corporate blog post:

It’s been a rollercoaster first half of the year, and we’ve emerged much bigger than we were in January. Our team has gone from 8 people to 58. The number of daily rooms has grown from 50k to half a million. We’ve added 10M people to the community since we launched Android in mid-May, and seen 90M DMs sent since we launched Backchannel last week. The average listener now spends over an hour a day on Clubhouse, and a huge percentage of people don’t just listen, but actually talk.

So on, and so forth.

If you’re looking to balance that narrative out with a dissenting opinion, you might want to hit this, well, Substack post from Ed Zitron that made the rounds yesterday: “Clubhouse Is The Big Stinker That Nobody Wants To Talk About.

Crooked Media partners with Acast on international sales. Acast will assist the progressive media company in selling ads within the following markets: Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. It’s my understanding that this is the first time Crooked Media’s inventory is being made available outside the United States.

The publisher’s domestic sales will continue to be handled by a mix of Cadence13 and its own in-house sales team. 

Call Her Daddy begins its Spotify exclusivity this week. And the podcast, hosted by Alexandra Cooper, is kicking off the arrangement with a big press push: the Wall Street Journal Magazine, Bustle, Entertainment Tonight, Refinery29, an Instagram Live session with the New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz, among others.

As a reminder, Spotify’s deal with Cooper was announced last month, with Variety reporting it to be worth around $60 million over three years.

Apple Podcasts has a job opening for a new Head of Content. That is, the role left open by the departure of N’Jeri Eaton, who joined Netflix this month as Head of Audio. Thought this was worth noting.

Secondly, because of all the previously-mentioned things about Netflix, audio, and whatever else it seeks to pursue beyond film and television… From Netflix’s Q2 shareholder letter:

We’re also in the early stages of further expanding into games, building on our earlier efforts around interactivity (e.g., Black Mirror Bandersnatch) and our Stranger Things games. We view gaming as another new content category for us, similar to our expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV. Games will be included in members’ Netflix subscription at no additional cost similar to films and series. Initially, we’ll be primarily focused on games for mobile devices.

That reminds me, wasn’t HBO Max supposed to feature podcasts on its app or something?