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Insider (June 25, 2021): Amazon Music acquires Art19, An Audiobook Addendum, And I’m Your Host… Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr

NICK NEWS: Amazon Music acquires Art19. Hey all, Nick here, butting in to quickly flag yesterday’s development.

On Thursday afternoon, Amazon’s music streaming division announced that it has acquired Art19, the San Francisco-based podcast company that chiefly specialized in building out a hosting, monetization, and distribution platform — though, it had sought to diversify into original content in recent months.

Art19 had been a fairly big M&A question mark in the market, given its standing as a podcast tech startup and the still-smoldering podcast M&A scene. That Amazon Music ended up being the buyer also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that it is perhaps the last major buying power in the market that’s still pulling together a clear strategy and, more importantly, infrastructure, even after the division announced its entry into the space with its spendy acquisition of Wondery at the end of 2020.

With Art19, Amazon Music will be getting a veteran team of podcast executives. Sean Carr, its CEO, founded the company all the way back in 2011, and has guided the company through several business cycles in the industry. Meanwhile, the Art19 C-suite also contains the former Stitcher execs Lex Friedman and Korri Kolesa, who both abruptly departed from the now-SiriusXM-owned podcast company in February 2019 to join the now-Amazon Music-owned podcast company. (Consolidation, baby!)

The size of the acquisition was not disclosed, but I’m sure they’ll give the sum to the Wall Street Journal at some point, or something.

Meanwhile, a reminder that Amazon Music is not Audible, and the two Amazon divisions inexplicably have separate on-demand audio strategies.

Okay, onto Aria.

Owning up to audiobooks. As a bit of a counter example to my column this week about gender perception in audio, for which two of the three people I spoke to had narrated audiobooks as part of their practice, I’ve recently been reminded of a few things. Of course, because of white imperialism and other forces and the select people who have power as a result, people have long voiced characters that are way outside of their identities; that wasn’t the case for the folks I spoke to, who represented people of trans experience specifically voicing characters for whom the same was true, but the opposite, of course, is very common.

Also, white people have voiced non-white characters for decades. Visible examples of this have been in the context of animated shows like Big Mouth, and, to me at least, it can be easy to forget how the same can and does happen in audiobooks, even though it may be even worse when it does (with a person potentially voicing multiple non-white characters, because people are really just out here doing all the voices) and this Slate piece explores both why something equally if not more problematic may have generally been spared closer scrutiny and how narrators, authors, directors and the like put in a ton of labor to make the best and most fair matches they can. It’s complex.

I’ve hardly listened to any audiobooks, and the last one was a bundle of essays written in the first person that rarely quoted other people, so while this personally hasn’t been prominently on my radar, I’m suddenly reminded that a friend once told me she couldn’t understand how I got through the audio version of Conversations with Friends, with that gruff Nick voice coming out of absolutely nowhere. You tried, Aoife (though should you have?) and it doesn’t land. And that’s an incredibly tame — and white — example.

The great Gayotic. On the topic of representation, the band MUNA recently released a queer chatterfest. Man, is this my shit. The band’s members — Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin, and Naomi McPherson — who graciously spoke with me for a piece I wrote last year, have tons of shorthand, and their banter is lightning fast. I loved it, hardly able to swallow my laughter during the interview. It was chaotic, sure, which is evidently common feedback that reporters give, since that’s exactly what inspired the name of this new show. But if, like me, you hear these folks talk and are reminded of friends and other people you’ve had the privilege of knowing who’ve prevented you from taking a full breath because you’re laughing too hard, you might give this a spin. By Gavin, Maskin’s, and McPherson’s own assessment, they haven’t quite figured out what the show is about just yet, but I truly don’t care.

AND I’M YOUR HOST… Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. 

For a show that started so recently (just this past October), Resistance didn’t take long to find its sound, it seems. That sound is direct and candid, rarely granting the ear an opportunity to wander, even when the words being spoken are clearly part of a script and not an interview.

The show’s narration and its conversations move quickly and sound honestly phrased, which is likely due in large part to the show’s production team, for the thorough researching and pre-interviewing one assumes is necessary to create dynamic tape and find the sources who will yield it. Such dynamism exists in a particular episode for which Resistance producer Wallace Mack reports and carries the story, though it surely also has to do with the in-the-moment agility of host Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. — if not, I doubt he would’ve been invited to this year’s Tribeca Festival, to host an episode of Resistance live.

Tejan-Thomas Jr. came to reporting from the tradition of spoken-word poetry, which set the ground floor for his storytelling tendencies and lays a guiding hand on his process now, according to what he shared with Reggie Ugwu for a writeup in The New York Times; when scripting his own words, the goal is to find “the rhythm or the words that feel like me,” which often takes many, many drafts. Indeed, it’s such rhythm and words that have come to characterize Resistance, even if they themselves can’t be characterized, changing all the time to meet the moment. And thus, the show is carried — and defined — by energy.


Hot Pod: What’s a question you always find yourself asking sources that feels unique to your approach to telling a story?

Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.: I don’t know if there is a single question that I always find myself repeating to the people in my stories, because each one is really different. But I’m always searching for the point where someone peeps that something is wrong in the world and they decide to do something about it. It’s usually never just one point but a collection of moments that pushes someone to act. So I’m always super interested in what those moments are and how people get to that point, because the point they usually get to is to take on the state which, objectively, is wild to me, but something pushed them to believe that they could do it and I’m always interested in what that is for the people I’m interviewing.

HP: If someone asked you that same question, how would you answer it?

Tejan-Thomas Jr.: I participated in demonstrations and protests throughout college, but after a while I started to lose hope because nothing ever really changed. It was just sad story after sad story, and I became emotionally drained. Resistance was born out of my personal experience grappling with the George Floyd protests and my initial decision to not engage because I thought… why should this time be any different? During that time I randomly came across an incredible photo of a man drinking out of a whites-only water fountain. The photo depicts author and inventor Cecil J. Williams engaging in a small act of defiance. It really helped me channel that same energy at a time when I needed to get off the couch. That image went on to inspire a segment on our show called Fuck Your Water Fountain. I was actually able to interview Cecil a few weeks ago and discovered the backstory of that photo, which you can listen to on the Resistance episode titled “F Your Water Fountain.”

HP: Which story that you’ve reported have you been the most attached to?

Tejan-Thomas Jr.: The story that I’ve been most attached to is definitely the series we did on the activist collective Warriors in the Garden. I spent so much time with those guys during a summer that was traumatic and emotional for us all, and I had to do the work of navigating my own emotions about the killing of George Floyd and others, as well as making sure I represented those guys’ emotions and experiences accurately. It was a lot of work, and I still think about ways I could’ve done a better job — lines I could’ve written, tape I could’ve gotten, research I could’ve done. In the end, though, I’m glad I didn’t let my obsession with perfection get in the way of getting their stories out there.

HP: Who’s made you the most nervous to interview?

Tejan-Thomas Jr.: I’m not really sure about this one. I think I’m equally nervous for all my interviews, especially the first time I talk to someone. That’s usually the most important time for me because I know I have to build trust and make sure the person leaves the interview feeling like it was a positive experience, even if they are talking about heavy topics and I’m pushing back on their answers. So I’m always thinking about that. I want to make sure I get good tape, but I also want to make sure I’m listening and doing my best to understand where they’re coming from. So I stay anxious about that.

HP: Ask yourself one question that you want to be asked. Then answer it.

Tejan-Thomas Jr.: The question I want to be asked is, “What are you trying to do with this show?”

I’m trying to work through why people choose to fight against systems that are hella powerful, ideas that are woven into the fabric of our world as we know it, people who can’t be reasoned with, and even themselves. People fight through fear and doubt and anxiety and try to do the impossible. My hope is if I can create a place where all those reasons for fighting can exist, that would be a great archive, as well as a great resource.


Saidu Tejan-Thomas is a poet, actor, podcast host, and older brother living in Brooklyn, New York. He loves basketball, video games, and good mezcal.