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Insider: November 6, 2020

Content Violation Spotify Follow-up Election Mush... and more!

Content Violation. Spotify joined Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook in pulling a recent episode of Steve Bannon’s show, War Room, which featured the former Trump adviser calling for the beheading of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray. The show was largely taped as an internet video, but was also distributed as a podcast. Twitter also took the additional step of permanently suspending Bannon’s account outright, while the Spotify, YouTube, and Facebook has largely retained the rest of his presence on those platforms. Here’s The Washington Post for a more detailed write-up of this specific development.

A Spotify spokesperson confirmed to me that the episode was removed for violation of its policies.

At this writing — 11am ET/9am MT — the episode is still accessible on Apple Podcasts, which means it’s also present on the galaxy of third-party podcasts that rely on Apple’s directory to populate their platforms. Not quite sure what that’s about; I’ve sent around inquiries, have not heard back yet.

Didn’t quite expect my interview with Casey Newton that I ran earlier this week to be somewhat evocative within the direct election context, but here we are.

Two quick follow-ups to that thread:

First, this seems like a pretty cut and dry decision with respect to content policies, given that we’re dealing with a suggestion or threat of violence in this context. Which means that this case is quite a bit different from the kinds of things I was focused on with Tuesday’s column, which sit within the looser and more amorphous notion of misinformation and disinformation.

Second, related to Newton’s uncertainty as to whether Spotify has a Trust & Safety team or equivalent in place, it can be confirmed that they have at least some Trust & Safety architecture in operation, which expressed itself in this situation. Again, I think this is a cut and dry situation, and the broader questions about how Spotify handles the trickier stuff remain: are they adequately empowered? Is there a clear, coherent, and consistent policy stance on how speech flows over the platform, applicable not just for the hosting side on Anchor but also in the owned programming edge case like The Joe Rogan Experience? And have they adequately communicated that policy stance both internally and externally?Before we move on (to another Spotify-related story, albeit), one last thing: I’d like to take a beat and concur with Casey Newton in the interview I ran earlier this week when he said

[Spotify] needs to be gaming out scenarios. Of course, they could land in a bunch of places in that [content policy crafting] process — and, by the way, one of those places could be, “We don’t care if our podcast hosts bring on people who have been deplatformed elsewhere, we’re going to enable more speech than any other platform, and here’s why.”

To underline the point, Spotify is perfectly free to lean into enabling more speech than any other platform, thus creating a more consistent space for their publication of The Joe Rogan Experience. (From a purely strategic perspective, that would be the move to make.)

However, my focus in this story lies more on the fact that such a stance likely carries significant costs to the esprit de corps of their workforce — which, obviously, can be mitigated in a bunch of ways within a capitalist context — and that it’s important for Spotify leadership to really grok and own the material impact of such speech on the world around them.

That’s why I sought to frame Tuesday’s column around the notion of responsibility: it should be unambiguous that Spotify is responsible for the consequences of Rogan’s speech now, as it should be unambiguous that Spotify is free to make the choice to publish him in the first place. Okay, moving on…Staying with Spotify…. This development caught my eye. From Variety:

Spotify will add the input of artists and labels to its personalized recommendation process, the company announced in a blog post Monday. The process will enable artists and labels to promote a new single, for example, over songs that Spotify’s algorithm might have suggested otherwise…

… the artists and labels will receive a lower royalty rate for this service — “a promotional recording royalty rate for streams in personalized listening sessions where we provided this service,” according to the announcement — but it is up to them whether or not that participate.

Put another way: this new tool enables a system in which artists and labels are theoretically given the ability to upgrade their position within Spotify’s recommendation algorithm in exchange for agreeing to a lower payout from listens on the platform. I think I can see the incentive structure here: it’s a way for Spotify to alleviate their pains within the music royalty payout frameworks, possibly positioning them for better economics over time. Also, sure, this isn’t a podcast-specific development at the moment, but as always, things could change eventually such that the tool is expanded to include podcasts.

Anyway, the feature drew some criticism from music corners when it was announced earlier this week, with a few folks characterizing it as new age Payola, the now illegal practice of labels bribing stations to get airtime for their music that was prominent in the hey-day of radio. I don’t know about that characterization, frankly, as this isn’t necessarily, you know, brazen under the table bribery, pay-to-play, whatever. But the directional concerns are definitely resonant, as the feature suggests a situation in which those with more money get to pay their way into positions to make even more money off the distribution framework. In the context of digital platforms and 2020, such compensation inequities tend to be enforced in the cognitive margins.

(That said, it’s not like algorithms are completely egalitarian in their ability to improve discovery to begin with — privileging engagement above all else, often coming with all too human biases baked into them — and it’s not like those algorithms can’t be gamed anyway.)

However, it’s worth noting that this tool, in Spotify’s customary manner, seems really early and flexible in its formulation, with the actual royalty payouts and the weightage of the artist/label “input” still being in flux. It’s entirely possible we’ll see the platform make severe adjustments to the thinking around the tool — or even perhaps pulling it entirely — as we move forward in time.

Meanwhile, I found this write-up from Music Business Worldwide useful in thinking through the specifics.Brain mush. I’m probably going to write some sort of election-related podcast column next week, but I can’t be fucked to come up with ideas right now, so here’s a call of desperation: did any election night podcast effort work for you?

I spent some time with The Daily’s broadcast, hit up a few livestreams, checked in with Axios’ recurring drops… but for what it’s worth, none of them did much for me. The night was owned by television and Twitter, pretty much in keeping with the status quo.

Meanwhile, my superficial read on the days and hours since: we’re in such a chaotic space right now, and real-time media is really good at feeding into, emulating, and providing experiences of that chaos — actual insight and information, however, is a different conversation — while on-demand media, in particularly on-demand audio, ultimately shakes out as an attempt to impose order on chaos, which is realll hard right now. That’s maybe why I think podcasts have been pretty ineffective in this specific moment. But also my brain is mush, so I might change my mind.

Anyway, hit me up if you have thoughts, experiences, and opinions.Geez. Alec Baldwin is taking his radio show/podcast, Here’s The Thing, to iHeartMedia after nine years of making the show with WNYC.

The Billboard write-up notes that Baldwin’s decision to make the shift started percolating earlier this year when WNYC editorially pushed for Baldwin to ask Woody Allen about the latter’s sexual misconduct accusations in an interview.

Billboard weirdly frames WNYC’s push as… somewhat negative, almost?:

It’s not just money that brought Baldwin to iHeart (he says he uses ancillary income like this to help fund his philanthropic foundation), but also his editorial independence. When Baldwin invited his longtime friend Woody Allen onto his show, he says WNYC required him to ask Allen about long standing accusations by his daughter Dylan Farrow, who says Allen sexually assaulted her when she was 7 years old. Allen, who was never formally charged, has always maintained his innocence, and while several actors who have worked with Allen — including Mira Sorvino and Ellen Page — have publicly denounced him and voiced support for Farrow, Baldwin has always stood by the filmmaker. “Once WNYC said, ‘We won’t air the interview unless you ask these questions’ and forced that editorial content on me like that, I knew I was out of there.” (The Allen episode aired in June and Baldwin says he asked some of WNYC’s questions after warning Allen in advance.)

Hat-tip to Nick A. for flagging the story on Twitter.

I reckon iHeartMedia’s willingness around giving “editorial independence” is going to bring us to some interesting conversations about content policies at the company/platform/conglomerate someday…Misc Notes.

  • Investigation Discovery, the cable home to all forms of true crime media, is now producing an original slate of true crime podcasts with Acast. If the glove fits…
  • Something I missed earlier this week: The Washington Post has set up “AI-powered audio election results within select Post podcasts.” Those updates started on election day itself and will run through to whenever the end shapes up to be. Those inserts appear at the top of “Post Reports,” “The Big Idea,” and “Can He Do That?”, and they offer a mix of both local and national results.