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Insider: May 28, 2020

Complexly's Hank Green: "Spotify wants to become the go-to for podcasts. Creators and audiences should worry." Axios: "Amazon is looking to invest in localized podcast content." Stitcher's Podcasting Report... and more!

Quick Top Line Thing. Stitcher has published its own podcast report, which seeks to sum up the past decade, plus a pandemic update. Really interesting stuff; I’ll do break-outs on Tuesday, but here’s the link for your browsing pleasure.“Spotify wants to become the go-to for podcasts. Creators and audiences should worry.” That’s the thrust of the piece Hank Green wrote for the Washington Post Opinion section that came out yesterday, and he draws from historical experience: the author and podcaster is also a prominent YouTube creator who is intimately familiar with making things for a medium aggressively governed by a single, dominant, closed-circuit platform — which, he guesses, is exactly what Spotify wants to be for podcasts.

I thought Green’s piece is particularly useful on two counts. The first is succinctly illustrating how a creative ecosystem tends to be made less free under single platform life. He writes:

In the world of video, creators are beholden to YouTube’s goals and policies. When YouTube began showing a preference for longer videos in recent years, that’s what creators started making. Many people who made shorter content saw their businesses simply disappear.

In other words, when an ecosystem’s incentives become contained within the shifting boundaries of a single platform’s incentives, you end up having less autonomy over how to build out a sustainable life. (Let alone a thriving one.) This dynamic should be familiar for anybody who’s worked in digital media in the age of Google and Facebook, of course. The counter-argument, I think, would be something like, well, we don’t quite know how Spotify is going to end up establishing the incentive structure for third-party publishers distributing over the platform just yet — maybe all of it could work out to accommodate a wide spectrum of ways of being. Maybe that’s true, to some extent, but that’s also besides the point: the point is that creators might end up in a situation where they’re perpetually afraid that another shoe is going to drop, like an office worker living in fear of the needs of a capricious manager.

Anyway, it’s the second thing in Green’s column that I’m more interested in: the notion that a “Spotify completely eats the Podcast World” outcome might not be inevitable. He offers two possible counter-balancing scenarios. The first is one that sees Spotify being adequately challenged by a competitor — Apple, say, or Google. The second is one that sees Spotify’s walled garden strategy underachieving; perhaps enough creators and listeners will end up preferring the status quo.

I hate Green a little bit for beating me to the punch; that second thing was at the heart of the complementary column that I decided to postpone from this past Tuesday’s newsletter to next Tuesday’s issue. But that’s my fault :P. More to come on this note.Axios: “Amazon is looking to invest in localized podcast content.” The scoop comes courtesy of the great Sara Fischer over at Axios, though my general feeling on this story is a big ol’ ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

Details are sparse so far, though interesting in its theory. Fischer reports, “Amazon sees a strategic advantage in podcasts by leveraging Alexa voice tech to help users discover personalized content… It wants to explore short-form audio content that can be surfaced when users ask Alexa for information about topics like news and sports.” To that end, the company is apparently hoping to make some venture investments in “local podcast companies,” like Blue Wire. I imagine a company like the Locked On podcast network, which goes heavy on the team-specific podcasts, would also be interesting, and I imagine, if this is actually a thing, Vox Media’s SB Nation and The Athletic, with their team-specific podcast efforts of yore, might get itself adequate incentive to further ramp those operations up.

If, of course, there’s any “there” there.

Let’s quickly chat about local podcasts before I talk about why I’m meh about this storyline. Long-time readers might recall that I’m personally been quite interested in the “local podcast” category for quite some time — in fact, it was the very concept I was trying to think through when I was Visiting Nieman Fellow in the fall of 2017, the process of which ultimately informed my speculative proposal on inverting NPR for the purposes of using on-demand audio technology to enhance local news distribution and monetization — and one of the interesting tensions I’ve routinely bumped into when digging around on local podcasts is the one between some need for targeting capabilities to help make local podcasting work and the podcast ecosystem’s as-is aversion to targeting, but structurally and to some extent culturally. Local podcasts are essentially niche podcasts, with the niche wildly varying in size depending on the nature of the “local,” and so a possible crucial tool for any niche publisher operating on the internet is some means to leverage the internet to access — and monetize, if advertising is the core business model, which is the case for most podcasts — the people who would be in the niche they’re dealing niche, such that it’s marketing capacities can go beyond a basic sense of word of mouth.

I imagine the Alexa distribution infrastructure is already capable of solving some of those problems. The fact that you can easily access the public radio station that serves your zipcode is a testament to this; this is something that Apple-dominant podcast ecosystem can’t easily provide, as of yet.

But my skepticism about Amazon isn’t about capability; it’s about meaningful intent, investment, and interest. This Axios story — about Amazon maybe using its venture arm to maybe make investments in “local podcast companies” — is all very tentative, suggesting that the “strategy,” at best, is a “let’s plant seeds and throw shit at the wall and mix metaphors and make some noise and see what happens.” And the fact it comes shortly after Spotify’s Big Rogan Newscycle, combined with Bill Simmons’ discussion about Spotify’s intent around sports audio via The Ringer acquisition in my interview with him for Vulture (not to oversell the impact of that interview, but hey, whatever, maybe it’s relevant, what the hell), and combined with a parallel report by Bloomberg about Amazon’s Audible also throwing money into “podcasting” (which, frankly, isn’t actually that much of a new development, given that they’ve been buying audio shows with celebrities and assorted big names attached already; in any case, shout-out to the great Laid Off Team of 2018, first assembled in 2015, who actually worked on building pod-like Audible Originals)… well, the whole thing strikes me as a bunch of muscle-flexing and groaning and attention-jockeying.

Which is to say, I wouldn’t lean too hard into this “Amazon wants into podcasting” narrative just yet. They’re interested in podcasting, sure, but kinda in the same way I’m interested in becoming a lawyer by buying old LSAT books every few years because, hey, maybe there’s something here, and plus a lot of people I like comparing my life to have left the media and gone to law school. Too personal? Whatever.

I’ll say one last thing about this Amazon story and then we’ll move on: it’s worth noting in mind that we’re talking about two separate teams doing separate things in what is ostensibly the same lane. Audible “buying podcasts” (ha), and Alexa “investing in local podcast companies” (hm). I’m not personally super familiar with the culture of Amazon as a corporation, other than having a broad understanding that it’s the kind of place where different divisions can get pitted against each other. Go for it fellas, whoever wins, wins.

And there’s a bit of an echo in here, I think, with Apple: there’s been reports — again, by Bloomberg — about Apple moving forward with some original podcast programming effort, but the natural first step in the analysis tends to draw some platform confusion. Would those original podcasts live on Apple Music? On Apple Podcasts? In a tucked-away section of the Apple TV+ app?

The same platform confusion can be applied to these stories about Amazon and “podcasts”: Audible is one thing sure, and so is Alexa, but oh, hey, what about Amazon Music? What am I supposed to be looking at here? More importantly, if you’re someone in Amazon tasked with figuring this whole podcast/ non-music on-demand audio thing out, what are you supposed to be looking at there?


Anyway, we’ve gone way too long, so I’m just going to throw a few news stories that stood out to me.Miscellaneous News.

  • From Indiewire: “IFP Week Is Going Virtual, Launches New Audio Hub for Podcast Sales and Development.” IFP is the Independent Filmmaker Project, by the way.
  • New York Public Radio has hired a new Chief Marketing Officer: Ayesha Ahmad, who joins from Chilewich, a direct-to-consumer textiles company. Ahmad replaces Lisa Baird, who left the organization earlier this year to become the commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League.
  • Meanwhile, over at NPR, Christopher Turpin has moved into the role of Chief of Staff, an interim position created to temporarily fill the shoes of President of Operations Loren Mayor, who left the organization earlier this year. Current reports.