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Insider: March 25, 2021 — Podsights funding, Paid Podcast Survey, Side Project Policies

Firstly, a quick update… In the Selected Notes section of Tuesday’s Hot Pod, I blurbed that Vox Media’s podcast revenue was said to have grown by 50% in 2020 compared to 2019, citing Digiday’s report.

There’s been a tweak: the piece has since been amended to say that Vox Media’s podcast revenue doubled in that time period. Big swing, you know?

As always, I’m a contributor to Vulture, which is a Vox Media brand, matryoshka doll, etc. etc.Podsights raises $4 million in additional seed funding. On Tuesday, the podcast advertising analytics startup announced that it has raised more money, adding to the $1.5 million it had previously raised in January 2020. This new round is led by Newark Venture Partners with contributions from Graham Holdings and Aglaé Ventures, on top of returning participation from existing investors Greycroft, Supernode Global, BDMI, and Betaworks.

Noteworthy is the fact that there’s pedigree in this pool of investors: Graham Holdings, of course, is the company that previously originated Panoply/Megaphone, had a stake in Gimlet Media, and currently backs City Cast. Betaworks was an investor in Gimlet and Anchor, while BDMI and Greycroft were investors in Wondery.

In case you need a refresher, Podsights pitches itself as a solution towards the attribution end of podcast advertising. They provide various tools — largely oriented around a pixel tracking-based approach — that publishers can use to provide brands with further metrics of information as to whether their podcast advertising impressions actually reached listeners and contributed to intended outcomes. The company says it has measured campaigns for publishers like NPR, Vox Media, Cadence13, and the New York Times, and that it has provided attribution data for “over 750 brands.”

In addition to using the new money to expand the team and build out new products, I’m told that Podsights will be turning its attention towards the “pre-buy part of the problem” — that is, expanding from helping brands figure out whether their podcast campaigns are effective towards helping brands figure out which podcasts to buy on. So watch out for that.

Podsights is presumably going to have a tricky path forward. In its blog post announcing the new fundraise, the company notes its stance against a purely programmatic podcast future, and it further pledged its commitment in the first-run, host-read format as podcasting’s primary advertising asset. How the startup navigates a podcast world that also sees a rising Spotify — with what appears to be a clear intent to define and own the podcast advertising experience — will be the thing to watch.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, Podsights is a company that has come up pretty frequently in my conversations with people on the advertising side of the business these days. Some are believers in what the startup is trying to do, though most seem to largely be curious about the technology. There’s some skepticism as well, though, and the biggest point of friction appears to revolve around questions of whether Podsights’ pixel-based approach is ultimately accurate — and whether it raises genuine privacy concerns, particularly within the context of increasing enforcement around GDPR and CCPA.I haven’t been keeping a close eye on this… But there seems to be some behind the scene brouhaha over at The Joe Budden Podcast, which recently went independent — though with some sort of partnership structure with Patreon — after the end of Budden’s exclusive contract with Spotify last year.

The story appears to involve some tension between Budden and his longtime co-hosts, Rory and Mal. The most detailed account I’ve found so far comes from Hot New Hip Hop.Variety Intelligence Platform/YouGov Survey: “Most podcast listeners still lukewarm on paying for podcasts.” And furthermore, there seems little movement on the matter going back to the last time this survey was conducted, which was in June 2020.

From the Variety write-up:

New data provided exclusively to Variety Intelligence Platform by YouGov, which in an early March survey found 75% of U.S. podcast user-respondents saying they had never paid in any way to listen to a podcast.

That figure is essentially indistinguishable from the percentage who said as much when asked the same question by YouGov in June 2020 (read our write-up on that survey here).

Moreover, willingness to cough up a few bucks for access to podcasts may not significantly change in the near future. YouGov found 83% of surveyed podcast listeners saying they were “not very” or “not at all” likely to pay in some way to access podcasts over the next year.

The piece went on to note — accurately, I believe — that these findings indicator, and in some ways reinforces, the dominant framework of the paid podcast use case we already know today: that is, it’s mostly done by dedicated and highly-engaged consumers of specific podcasts who shell out cash to support those shows. This, of course, is in contrast to the Netflix-style subscription model, which presupposes the typical consumer to pay an upfront subscription fee for access to podcast content.

Variety’s findings shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, nor should it come as a point of discouragement for those who believe in some sort of paid podcast platform in the future, I’d argue. For one thing, I think it’s always useful to remember that behaviors and preferences tend to be eminently moldable over time, and furthermore, we know the general shape of challenge for paid podcast platforms to begin with: vast majority of podcast offerings are free, so why would people be inclined to want to pay for something when they’re faced with an infinite horizon of free alternatives? I should say: the very same question should be applied to the way we read paid subscription efforts by digital media companies more broadly. Why pay for YouTube Red? (Because you love those contracted vloggers.) Why pay for Spotify or Apple Music? (Because the music labels cracked down on free supply of dubious legality.) And so on.

I’ve argued this multiple times before in the context of Luminary, but the core challenge with building pure paid podcast platforms from the get-go lies in (a) providing something that could be theoretically perceived by audiences as consistently beating the universe of free alternatives (which is very hard); (b) hammering down on a niche that hasn’t been adequately served by the wider ecosystem (shout-out to Crunchyroll, which did just that for anime and the video-on-demand business); or (c) fundamentally solving a consumption problem that many average podcast listeners face (as in the case of early Netflix with respect to accessing DVDs). I suppose there’s also a possible (d), which is finding a way to constrict free supply, but come on, don’t be an asshole.

Anyway, the point is: this consumer behavior finding hasn’t changed because it hasn’t been given a reason to change. One day, maybe someone will figure out a real way for it to do so.

Now, because I’m a newsletter-first writer and a Very Online person, I also find myself thinking about this in terms of the whole Substack thing, and my gut feeling tells me that there’s some connective lines to be drawn between this paid podcast finding to all the stuff about whether there’s enough readers with subscription money that can adequately support all these writers become solo-entrepreneurs. But I’ll leave that for another day, and perhaps for an non-monetizable Twitter thread.

While we’re on the subject of podcasts and newsletters…The New York Times is rolling out a new process to vet its reports’ side projects, including personally-published podcasts and newsletter.” Steven Perlberg over at Insider got his hands on a leaked memo announcing this one.

From Perlberg’s piece:

The New York Times is creating a system to approve work by its journalists that’s done outside the company — such as newsletters, podcasts, book deals, or consulting on TV and film projects — a memo obtained by Insider said.

A committee of Times leaders are expected to rule on whether reporters can conduct outside projects and whether those might compete with the Times’ own ever-expanding news offering.

Contrary to what some media folk appear to have thought on Twitter, this move doesn’t come as a measure to stymie journalists wanting to jump ship and try their hand at the Substack roulette table, but as precaution in the wake of David Brooks’ shady-seeming dealings with a Facebook-funded Aspen Institute project, first reported by BuzzFeed News.

I imagine there’s plenty of differing views on this, but the move doesn’t strike me as all that unreasonable, at least with respect to its reporters. On the one hand, the New York Times, in particular, is a closely watched institution, and the thing about stuff produced by their employees — also highly watched, generally speaking — on the side is that there’s always a possibility for controversies to pop up there and trickle back to the Times, which is in this difficult, weird position of being a persistent moral target in the contemporary culture wars. If they were going to navigate a controversy brought on by an employee, well, it’s better to do so within the agreeable terms of the Times being directly culpable for facilitating whatever that thing is. And on the other hand, with respect to potential internal competition, I also think it’s fairly reasonable concern to have, though I suspect there won’t be too many instances of reporter side projects clashing with institutional projects outside of “star talent” stuff, which I imagine would largely be previously adjudicated in direct contract negotiations.

That said, I get the agita on the part of at least some reporters here. This may well feel to some like the institution clamping down on one’s ability to go out into the market, find your true value, and fully actualize it. (Though, of course, some consideration should be given to the fact that at least part of that value was facilitated within the context of resources, editing, and protections provided by the institution, which is a point that seems to often get lost in the Great Substack Debate.) But it comes down to the execution of these vetting processes, which may be overly aggressive or may be perfectly precautionary. It’s a grand ol’ fuzzy space, frankly, but I think it’s important to read these things through the frame of a give-and-take/balance-of-power between everyday workers, “star talent,” and the organization that’s a little more in flux today than ever before.

I should also say: I’m personally very pro-side project, in part because side projects are efficient vessels for interesting experiments. Organizations can move a little too slowly and be a little too unfeelingly of individual workers. And yes, there is indeed a structural disproportionality between the gains of the organization and the gains of the individual worker in any labor setting. I started Hot Pod in large part because I didn’t feel like I wasn’t being adequately backed by my employer at the time. There wasn’t a vetting process around it — though, my editor at the time did tell me to work on the thing during off-hours, which, you know, reasonable request — but I get the problems that may pop up if I, say, said or did something really bad in Hot Pod, which could bounce back to my employer at the time, which in turn could bring harm to my colleagues at the time.

Anyway, I’m veering a little too off the topic of podcasts here. But I think it’s an interesting and important story to flag, because I’m sure there are audio workers in various podcast publishers itching to work on their side projects and perhaps break out of their grind, and I imagine more publishers will end up directly dealing with more instances of stuff like this moving forward.Revolving Door. Got a new job? Tell me — would love to Let The People Know.