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Insider: October 1, 2020

Spotify releases The Michelle Obama Podcast on other platforms The New York Times to re-examine Caliphate podcast Misc news!

Spotify releases The Michelle Obama Podcast on other platforms. This development comes as something of a surprise, given that the highly-anticipated show had just made its debut as an exclusive platform only a few weeks ago, at the very end of July. It was the first project to come out of the high-profile podcast partnership between Spotify and Higher Ground, the Obamas’ production company, a deal that was largely interpreted as a powerful driver for the exclusives portion of Spotify’s broader podcast strategy.

(As always, let me take a beat to acknowledge the scruples of some in the podcast community about the use of the word “podcast” in a context describing an exclusive audio show that isn’t distributed over the RSS infrastructure. I see you.)

Anyway, the big pundit question here is whether this is a mitigation tactic… or something closer to a flex. Which is to say, are they re-releasing the show out in the wild because it didn’t perform as well as they had hoped as a platform exclusive, or are they doing this to see what happens and just because they could?

The odds, I think, are probably on the latter. Now, it doesn’t really behoove anybody to take press release details at their word — for the record, Spotify content chief Dawn Ostroff claimed that the show was a “chart-topping smash hit” (Spotify charts, of course) that reached “millions of listeners across the globe” in the corporate blog post about the wider release — but I mean, let’s be real, The Michelle Obama Podcast was never really a project that was going to underperform. Consider that this was a production that even drove completely unrelated podcasts with the phrase “Michelle Obama” in its metadata up the Apple Podcast charts earlier this summer. (One has to imagine this was a situation that turned heads at both Apple Podcasts and Spotify.)

Also relevant is the fact that Spotify hasn’t really appeared to enforce a strict, consistent, or coherent approach around a platform-exclusive strategy across its original and acquired programming portfolio. You’d find different percentages of the portfolio from Spotify Studios, Gimlet, Parcast, and The Ringer floating all over the place, and there’s a real arbitrariness to the extent to which exclusivity is applied, so much so that it feels like we’re looking at a situation where Spotify feels comfortable enough to run an assortment experiments and see what the data tells them. It’s probably more appropriate to regard Spotify’s adventures with exclusives as more being adventures with windowing… or, if you prefer the parlance favored in the video games industry, “timed exclusives.”

After all, what’s the pressure? Spotify is currently in a position to do what they like with their shows on the Apple Podcast platform, such that they can effectively view the latter as fertile ground to harvest new listeners and users over to their platform. Further, it doesn’t seem to quite behoove Apple Podcasts — historically associated with podcasting’s open publishing ideology — to engage in significant retaliatory efforts against what is a significant platform competitor. (They could instead engage in minor retaliatory efforts, as they did with Stitcher by reportedly withholding marketing collaborations for Missing Richard Simmons back in 2017 when they learned that it was being windowed with Stitcher Premium.) That would likely kick up a shitstorm, one that they are probably unprepared to deal with until they are able to articulate a coherent strategy and intent with the space beyond their incumbent benevolent “impartial ward” status. The best they could do now, it seems, is plug the gaps: if you scan the Apple Podcasts front page right now, you’d find a “If You Like Joe Rogan” rail that was presumably set up in preparation for the eventual departure of The Joe Rogan Experience from the platform.

Two closing thoughts. First, Spotify’s decision to give The Michelle Obama Podcast a wider release is quite obviously a gambit to expand its customer acquisition funnel and deepen the imprint of that show. You plop the show on other platforms, stack it with messaging about Spotify, and maybe you’ll end up converting some percentage of non-Spotify listeners into Spotify listeners, particularly if you dangle the prospect of future seasons being exclusive to the platform. (A Spotify spokesperson confirmed to The Verge’s Ashley Carman that future seasons — “if the show’s renewed” — will debut exclusively on the platform, but did not specify about any windowing arrangements.) It’s money on the table.

Second, and maybe this is rich coming from me having just laid out a narrative that sees Spotify and Apple Podcasts as zero-sum competitors, but there is a universe in which the relationship could be competitively complementary. I brought up the video games industry earlier, and I think there’s a framework to mined from what’s happening in this upcoming generation of consoles: Sony favoring exclusives and Microsoft favoring a free-flowing library, which marks something of a departure from the “which has the stronger library?” zero-sum paradigm of the past. This new paradigm is contingent on both parties having very different and distinct underlying business models that serve each with unfolding depth (Sony with direct sales of games and consoles, Microsoft with membership to its Games Pass service), which isn’t something that you can say about Apple Podcasts in relation to Spotify just yet. But maybe we’ll get there.

In other Spotify news… The first project to drop from Spotify’s partnership with DC Comics will be a Batman series written by David Goyer. Yep, that David Goyer. Personally, I’m a big fan of the first Blade movie.The New York Times will reexamine the reporting in Caliphate. From The Daily Beast:

The New York Times is putting together a team of journalists to “re-report” its critically acclaimed podcast on the Islamic State after one of its central characters was arrested for allegedly faking his background in terrorism.

“We are going to look for the truth of his story and inevitably we are going to also ask the question about how we presented him so we are going to put together a group of reporters and take a new look at the story, his story and inevitably how we presented his story,” executive editor Dean Baquet told staff on Wednesday, according to a readout of the meeting provided to The Daily Beast.

Quick recap: on Friday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested a man, Shehroze Chaudry, for falsely portraying himself as a former ISIS member. Chaudry is believed to be the individual known as “Abu Huzayfah,” the main subject of Caliphate, the Times’ audio documentary series from 2018. Rukmini Callimachi, who reported and hosted Caliphate, stood by her work, and in a Twitter thread, noted that the credibility of Huzayfah was one of the core narrative tensions throughout the series. The Times, as well, had initially published a statement standing by the reporting.

Over at the Washington Post, media critic Erik Wemple jumped on this story, pubbing a column on the concerns about the show and then a follow-up expressing skepticisms about Callimachi’s reporting work more generally, interestingly enough.

In a piece for Slate, Canadian researchers Amarnath Amarasingam and Leah West argued that Huzayfah’s claims and the media attention it drew — including Caliphate — had direct consequences on the way Canadians thought about radicalization within their communities.

They wrote:

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Huzayfah case—the podcast, and also the notion that individuals who had carried out executions for ISIS could make it back to Canada and evade criminal prosecution—profoundly influenced the policy debate about whether to repatriate the men, women, and children in Kurdish custody. To date, Canada has refused to return a single person from northeastern Syria, not even a 5-year-old orphan girl named Amira. No other liberal democracy can match Canada’s abysmal record on this issue.

Caliphate won a Peabody Award for its run, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In the Times’ own write-up on the matter, Callimachi noted that she welcomed the Times’ re-review of the reporting. For what it’s worth, I really liked the show — though shout-out to several podcast and journo folks who wrote to me in the wake of this news to say that they didn’t and never did — and I’ll be watching what happens next with curiosity.Misc.

  • Multitude Productions wrote in to tell me that they’re working on Tracy Clayton’s next podcast project, “My 90s Playlist” with co-host Akoto Ofori-Atta, which will be distributed by Sony Music Entertainment.

  • Front my inbox: “Open World, a fiction podcast anthology focused on alternate, more hopeful futures, hosted by Rose Eveleth and Keisha “TK” Dutes, launches on October 5th, 2020. The show began at Glitch, but after internal media cutbacks, the IP was transferred to Philo’s Future Media, and is now a joint production of Flash Forward Presents and Philo’s Future Media.”

  • Home Cooking has extended its run to the end of the year, and since this isn’t the first time they’ve extended their run, I’m pretty sure there’s a non-zero percent chance it’ll be extended again for as long as we languish within quarantine.

  • Interesting New York Times piece on a couple of Twitch streams that facilitated group-watching of Tuesday night’s gym sock of a presidential debate. Neither here nor there, but I’ve been finding myself pulling up a lot of Just Chatting Twitch streams while watching the NBA playoffs, and you know, there’s a lot of overlap in the experience you get there with the experience of hang-out chat casts in general. Lotta juice here.