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Insider: September 2, 2021 — Joe Rogan has COVID, The Bigger Picture with Live Audio, An Assortment of Goods

Hey all, Nick here.

Back a day earlier than originally mentioned. Unsurprisingly, I got antsy. This is what I did all vacation.

Quick housekeeping note: So, I haven’t been on top of my inbox while being off the past few weeks, and I’m planning to spend the rest of the afternoon plowing through my inbox. Tomorrow’s Insider will largely be a notebook dump from that dive — take this as an invitation to send over whatever news bites, reports, and press releases you might have. Like a clearing-house, right?

Cool, let’s start with the headliner…

Joe Rogan has COVID. Not exactly a conventional podcast business story to link to, except for the fact of Rogan’s considerable influence and status as one of the biggest hosts in the industry — to a point that this development warranted a push alert from the New York Times (along with a torrent of headlines and media mentions) when the news became public yesterday. According to his own recounting, he started experiencing symptoms after returning from doing a live show in Florida over the weekend.

As you might know, Rogan has drawn controversy in the past for, among many other things, his dismissive statements on COVID vaccinations. More recently, he had also expressed criticism against vaccine mandates, noting that he won’t “force” the audience for his current run of live shows to get vaccinated in order to gain entry. This, of course, is consistent with his deep libertarian views, which is why, personally, I doubt he’ll change perspective on vaccination mandates — though I suppose, within the context of his libertarianism, a possible shift would be him becoming less dismissive of the need for vaccines itself. But it’s never wise to prognosticate movements in ideology.

Anyway, according to an Instagram video Rogan posted yesterday disclosing the news, his health seems to be on the up-swing. (The same can’t quite be said about these guys — from the Washington Post: “Four conservative radio talk-show hosts bashed coronavirus vaccines. Then they got sick.” And eventually died.) He had apparently soared through a number of actual and supposed treatments, including ivermectin, the horse deworming drug that the CDC is advising against because of its ineffectiveness and possible toxicological danger, which had surged in usage due to widespread health misinformation.

In any case, one imagines Spotify’s revenue infrastructure sighing in relief. After all, according to leaked data written up by Insider, Rogan’s $100 million deal was said to be “worth it” to the company, despite what has been previously purported as his waning influence

The bigger picture with live audio over apps and platforms. Earlier this week, Axios published a scoop by Sara Fischer finding that Amazon — now in the post-Bezos Andy Jassy era — has been “investing heavily” in a live audio feature/platform, though there seems to be some discrepancy within the report as to what, exactly, “live audio” entails in this context.

Axios groups the effort together with Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, and Spotify’s Greenroom, but some sources appear intent on further narrowing the idea of what the feature is supposed to be: less live audio group-chat in the many-to-many model in favor of something more top-down, emphasizing the metaphor of digital performance spaces.

Of course, you can find both those operating modes across many of the current live audio product options, particularly Clubhouse and Greenroom. Pull those up on any given night, and you’re equally able to find everyday people making their own rooms as well as spaces where artists and creator-types are holding court. Where there is a difference with a distinction, I imagine, comes down to the harnessing of star/celebrity power: reading the Axios report, I get the sense that Amazon’s preferred strategy is to drive this upcoming feature with experiences like, among other things, musicians and comedians performing live-streamed sets. Which, of course, is also more or less where I’ve generally interpreted Greenroom’s bigger picture interests to be allocated, given Spotify’s historically-crucial relationship with the music industry.

Anyway, this news comes as no big surprise, given Amazon’s recent adventures in the audio space. But I do want to take a beat to highlight what I continue to think is the bigger picture with these stories: the hook with live group audio (or social audio or whatever you’d want to call it) might be its novelty as an emerging media category that’s still imagining all the different ways it can be, but its most potent potential is how it’s well-placed to structurally hollow out traditional linear radio over the long-term — perhaps more so than podcasting ever did.

I haven’t fully formed this thought yet, so allow me the indulgence of thinking out loud here: It’s been my impression that, based on the events of the last five years, the rise of podcasting didn’t end up necessarily challenging linear radio in any fundamental way, but it did unlock greater untapped value by introducing more efficiency to audio consumption and creation. Say what you want about “peak podcasts,” but today, there’s a whole galaxy and generation of shows — from narrative stuff to extremely long chatcasts to shows hosted by people who would otherwise be denied access to airtime by traditional gatekeepers — that simply wasn’t well-served by the technical structure and dominant incentives of traditional radio. And so, instead of directly interrupting linear radio, podcasting ended up creating new markets, businesses, and systems around linear radio, at times funneling value back into it.

The rise of live audio products, which typically connected listeners and creators over their smartphones, more directly threatens linear radio because its main value proposition as an experience is capable of mapping against (and maybe even improving) the exact experience you’d get from broadcast radio.

Now, I typically dislike doing… let’s call it “tech hypelord fanfiction,” but I do think the exercise is instructive to illustrate the fault lines here. Consider the following hypothetical: let’s imagine a situation in which Greenroom and whatever Amazon is cooking up now offer listeners the ability to join rooms where they can (a) listen to Top 40 music, (b) listen to DJs spins country and classic hits or whatever, (c) Courtney Barnett playing a live set, (d) a wide variety of radio hosts doing their radio host things, (e) a wide variety of digitally-native audio creators doing their digitally-native audio creator things, and so on. How would traditional radio fit into people’s lives — and more importantly, grow over the long term — in this environment?

Of course, it’s easy to imagine an idealized version of product futures. To get to this hypothetical end-goal, you’d have to navigate some truly dramatic crevasses: among them, and perhaps most importantly, the power politics of the music industry, music rights, and so on. But my point here is simply to illustrate that the best possible outcome for the live audio category more directly challenges the fundamental value of traditional radio than the best possible outcome of podcasting and on-demand audio. Doubly so when you consider what’s thought to be the fundamental pillars keeping up traditional radio’s contemporary persistence: its interwovenness with car OEMs. Which is to say, a segment that’s outside of the control of radio companies.

It’s been my sense that there continues to be a lot of faith that traditional radio will persist in current reach, strength, and form over the long-term. After all, broadcast radio still reaches the vast majority of Americans 83% of people over 12 in 2020, though that’s down from 89% in 2019, per numbers collected by Pew Research. (But as Fischer points out, radio revenues dropped by 25% over the pandemic, so cracks are already clearly evident in this particular narrative.) Podcasting may not have ended up being the thing that tips traditional radio off the ledge, but I’m getting more of a sense these days that this whole live audio thing could very be just that.

In other live audio news…

Twitter has begun introducing Ticketed Spaces for some iOS users, reports The Verge. And yesterday, the blue bird officially launched its Super Followers feature, which grants certain powerful tweeters — who gain acceptance into the program — the ability to build paid subscription-driven exclusive tweet offerings. (Prices can be set at 2.99, $4.99 or $9.99. What would a $10 tweet look like? Presumably, something not unlike a gold-laced chicken wing.) Also, something called a Safety Mode? Fuck yeah. I’m still getting hate-tweets for my speed-watching essay. Anyway, point is: Twitter seems to be leaning hard into this whole creator thing. I wonder if dril, or any number of other shit-posters, will benefit from this. Probably not.

Meanwhile, Clubhouse is rolling out spatial audio features, which helps carve out a user experience where people are more able to feel like they’re actually sitting in a physical room with other people. Here’s the TechCrunch write-up on the matter, which contains some technical details for those interested. One thread that stood out to me: the integration involves code from a spatial audio-focused company called High Fidelity, which was founded by Phillip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, that online virtual world experience started in the early 2000s that long predated the contemporary push around the so-called “Metaverse.” Speaking of which, what’s the over-under on a live audio app evoking the term “Metaverse” within the next few months? I’ll take the under.