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Insider November 4, 2021 — Amazon’s decade-long podcast plan

An interview with Amazon Music's director of podcasts

Hello! I’m back! Yes, it’s me, Ashley, and I’m writing to you from my new apartment that I know you’re sick of hearing about already but I won’t stop mentioning. My brain only has room for two things at this point: apartment thoughts and podcasting. You get a serving of both. Anyway, we have a lot to get through today, so let’s do it. We’re talking Amazon’s podcasting vision, The New York Times’ audio status, and Facebook’s push into subscriptions.

EXCLUSIVE: A chat with Amazon Music’s head of podcasts

On Tuesday, I wrote about Amazon launching synchronized in-app podcast transcripts and said I’d be back with more for you Insiders. So today, I’m running an interview I conducted with Kintan Brahmbhatt, Amazon Music’s director of podcasts. I find conversations like this valuable because they level set. I haven’t seen much reporting, if any, on what Amazon’s real plans for podcasting are, so this chat gave me an idea of what to expect, even if it’s in the vague language typical of tech companies.

Let me specifically point out a couple things: Brahmbhatt says Amazon is viewing its audio work over the course of a decade, a reassurance for me, a person who needs things to continue to cover, and he also specifically mentions the car as a place where Amazon is focusing — similarly to Spotify with its Car Thing. Then there’s this line from Brahmbhatt: “…podcasts are just storytelling — storytelling and stories are [a] human scale opportunity.” That’s one way to describe it. 

The interview’s a bit long, so I’m going to put it at the bottom of this newsletter. Stick around for the news now, or skip around. Whatever! Enjoy!

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Ben Smith explains what went wrong with BuzzFeed podcasts

I, like everyone else in the media biz, listened to the Longform Podcast last week featuring New York Times media columnist Ben Smith. (Disclosure: The Longform Podcast is part of Vox Media’s podcast network, and Vox also owns this newsletter.) It’s a great interview and one especially fascinating for beat reporters — I’d recommend it! Smith also touches on his former employer, BuzzFeed, and what happened to the company’s audio team. For those who need a reminder: in 2018, BuzzFeed laid off its entire internal podcasting team and shut down most of its shows. Its audio efforts later restarted in 2019 with an iHeart partnership and daily show dedicated to Donald Trump’s first impeachment. (God! First!) The two entities currently still produce a daily show, now called BuzzFeed Daily.

Here’s the meat of what Smith had to say: 

“I really screwed up the business of it,” he says. “Like, didn’t see where it was going, didn’t understand the resources it needed, didn’t fund it enough to give people the support they needed to succeed but did fund it enough to have people incredibly overworked … I don’t know — we just screwed it up, honestly.” He goes on to say BuzzFeed didn’t “have revenue from it, didn’t have the patience and the vision to see where the business was headed, that there was going to be, two years from now, huge demand for shows with big audiences.”

So there you have it.

The failing New York Times?

Vanity Fair writer Charlotte Klein asks in her latest piece: “What happened to The New York Times’ grand podcast ambitions?” The story then goes on to argue that the Times has failed to follow up on the success of The Daily and doesn’t know where to go from here. She points to an in-the-works daily afternoon show, which I’ve independently confirmed exists with a source, and its lack of a launch as one example. The piece is broadly a retelling of the major Times story beats: the Caliphate disaster, Andy Mills’ scandal and departure, and the failure to launch a TV show off The Daily as evidence of a lack of grand podcast ambitions.

But I’m… not convinced. The Times might not have as big of a hit as The Daily, something so culturally relevant it was parodied on SNL, but it’s also not coasting. The company acquired Serial Productions, struck a marketing and ad deal with This American Life, poached Ezra Klein and Kara Swisher from Vox Media (hi, again, disclosure), and launched limited series like Day X, 1619, and Rabbit Hole, which I doubt were flops. (The Times also says its audio programming reaches, on average, 20 million people per month.)  

I’m sure the company has something happening behind the scenes — lots of people have left in recent months — and perhaps there’s some broader unrest and burnout going on, but I don’t totally buy that the New York Times is fumbling around in the dark for a hit. 

Which leads me to a quick aside related to the Timesearnings call yesterday. In it, the publisher said it added a total of 455,000 new digital subscriptions this past quarter, which includes 135,000 for games, cooking, and Wirecutter. An interesting stat to point out, considering that it’s building a standalone audio app, too.

Facebook updates its subscription product, not for podcasts… yet

Yesterday, Facebook announced updates to its creator subscription efforts, like the ability for creators on its platform to download their subscribers’ email addresses and new ways to identify subscribers in livestreams. The Verge angle is about how Facebook is skirting around Apple’s App Store fees, too, but, for our purposes, let’s look ahead. I run a Facebook Page, technically, that I set up years ago to promote my stories. It’s long dead and not something that’s useful to me outside of situations like yesterday’s. I clicked through to view how I could monetize my page and saw this: 

Because of whatever the criteria are, I qualify for instant articles and paid online events. Setting them up would be as simple as clicking through those buttons, agreeing to some terms, inputting my payout info, and uploading content. Opting in to in-stream ads for both on-demand and live videos would be just as simple to do if I qualified. I point this out because I can easily see a similar button for podcasts. “In-stream ads for Podcasts,” like, duh. It’s so obvious. 

The ease with which someone can turn on monetization for their Facebook-distributed content should terrify Spotify, most of all, but also anyone else who might be thinking about getting into the ad game for a wide swath of podcasters. Spotify’s entire gamble has been that it can generate more revenue through podcast advertising and, notably, can do so by monetizing smaller podcasts people make through Anchor. Facebook can do that, too, and has the clear infrastructure to pull it off, along with the advertisers and billion-plus user base. I imagine we might see a world in which podcasters monetize in multiple places and through various ad platforms. I’m not fully bullish on Facebook because Zuckerberg and squad could pivot away at any moment, but I can see the vision.

Okay, let’s wrap up with a couple little social audio things, and we’ll get you outta here, onto your day, and then onto Friday. :’)

Twitter Spaces gets native recording and an NBA deal

The headline here is relatively self-explanatory, but Twitter Spaces now supports recording and allows hosts to share that audio in a tweet — potentially a big driver of engagement and marketing. I’m hearing more and more about people being interested in Spaces, and I’m seeing some solid engagement there. Granted, it’s not consistent, or even daily, but the spaces I do see happening often have a decent number of listeners, interesting topics, and reliable names behind the conversation, probably because all of media is on Twitter all day.

The other Spaces news is it inked a deal with the NBA to bring exclusive live audio content to the platform. The NBA is on deck for 40 spaces that’ll include “players, legends, and other members of the NBA family.” The conversations will be programmed around big events, like the league’s 75th anniversary. Sports content is the thing every platform wants and is specifically lucrative for live audio programming — the leagues come with passionate fan bases and immediate game results to discuss. This follows Spaces’ partnering with the NFL on exclusive live audio content, too, a deal the league signed after working with Clubhouse. Speaking of which…

Clubhouse has a new icon and a localized app

This is minor, but Clubhouse is localizing its app on Android, and later on iOS, starting with 13 languages: French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Kannada, Korean, Malayalam, Portuguese (Brazilian), Spanish, Tamil, Telugu. It also has a new app icon, Anirudh Deshmukh, a singer from India. I want to note that Deshmukh is the second Clubhouse app icon from outside the US — he follows Dandara Pagu from Brazil. 

In the same breath I hear people talk about Spaces, I also hear them wonder aloud whether people still go on Clubhouse. (To which Clubhouse will tell you that 700,000 rooms are made daily.) But the effort to showcase users abroad, I think, is telling — Clubhouse might not be experiencing the hype and love it once held in the US, but abroad could be a different situation entirely. Speaking of which, if you live in India or Brazil or anywhere else where Clubhouse is having a moment, I’d love to speak with you. I’m so curious about how it’s being used abroad. Feel free to reach out!

Now, here’s Kintan’s interview, per the above. I’ll be back tomorrow with more. TTYL!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Ashley: So, Kintan, you mentioned that the team launched transcripts because that was a key feature your users mentioned. What other areas do you want to innovate around?

One thing is discovery. Discovery is really something both listeners and creators have asked for. There’s so many folks who are already listening to podcasts, but we are still encountering this podcast-curious customer base for whom Amazon Music is their first entry into podcasting. For us, the highest order bit is going to be really helping customers discover and get started with podcasts and be really engaged with podcasts.

One of the other vectors would be content, so really partnering up with folks like Van Jones, for instance, who hasn’t done a proper podcast in the past. The next vector would be the customer experience, and that’s things such as transcripts, immersing customers in the story, and better discovery recommendations. And third is about access, like how quickly do you make it easy for customers to get into it, especially around auto and car, [and] around voice, so making it dead simple for customers to go from one form factor to another.

I wonder if there is a certain area of interest in terms of content for Amazon Music. Like genres you and the team want to focus on, or specific types of podcasters?

It’d be limiting if we were to go after just a few genres. We’re going to really focus on a broad variety of genres, of listener bases across the board. There will be an Amazon-specific spin to it, obviously, because we know what works for our customers. But I’d be remiss to say, “Hey, we want to just be true crime, or we just want to do society and culture,” because podcasts are just storytelling — storytelling and stories are [a] human scale opportunity.

It’s going to evolve with time. There’s no one size fits all. When we look at the existing customer base of Amazon, it’s everyone. So we want to make sure we offer a broad enough, and interesting enough, selection of content for our customers, and some will be original, some would be licensed, some will be available widely. We just want to make sure there’s enough available for everyone, and we have customers’ favorite shows in most of the genres they care for.

This leads me right into asking what you make of the exclusive podcast strategy that we’ve seen other platforms utilize. Amazon recently signed SmartLess to a weeklong exclusive period. You also made 9/12 bingeable on Amazon Music but released weekly everywhere else. Is there a sweet spot for you? Will you do full Amazon Music exclusives?

It’s early days, so the honest answer is we don’t know. What we are going to do is an experiment and see what resonates with customers, what resonates with creators, what resonates with advertisers, and see how we can help do it in the most customer-centric and most creator-centric way. So, just the two examples you mentioned, they had completely different distribution methods, and that speaks to our approach of experimentation. We are so early in the industry cycle that we don’t want to say we are just in the go-all-exclusive camp or the opposite camp.

We look at it as a 10-year story arc. This is not like a one- or two-year “make a quick buck” kind of thing for us. Amazon is in it for the very long term. Answers may vary from show to show, as well. For some shows, it may make sense to have a binge-listening option available. For some other shows, it may not matter. That may sound like a cop-out answer, but I’m just being very honest.

Well, I’m very happy to hear you’re thinking about this as a decade-long endeavor because I have wondered if all the Big Tech investments in podcasting are a bubble. Like, will I have a job covering this industry in 10 years.

Amazon takes a long-term approach. We work on multi-year plans with several downstream impacts, so we are in it for the long term as Amazon. And if you just look at it just besides Amazon, storytelling is such a universally applicable medium and form of delivering content. 

Customers have more time for their ears than they do for their eyes. If you look at it from a share of attention perspective for customers, we think more and more customers will have more time to listen to things, and podcasts are here to stay. 

My last question is just to ask what you make of the live audio trend, like Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, Facebook Live Rooms, and the list goes on.

It’s very early days. I’m not sure the last time you were on Clubhouse. It goes up and down, I’d say, depending on who’s speaking. We have our work cut out for us. As we talk with podcasters, creators, and so on, there are enough existing problems that we’ve identified that we want to solve. My team is laser-focused on addressing those right now. Do I like Clubhouse or Spaces? Yeah, I’ve been on all of those platforms, and yeah, if the speaker is good, I enjoy the conversations. But, nothing to announce on that front.