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Insider: September 3, 2020

Parcast moves to unionize. The announcement came in yesterday, with the organizing body’s official statement noting that the “overwhelming majority of writers” at the podcast, founded by Max Cutler and acquired by Spotify for about $56 million in March 2019, have signed cards to unionize with WGA East towards the purpose of collective bargaining.

Here’s the most relevant chunk of the statement:

We, the writers, researchers, fact-checkers, hosts, and producers of Parcast, look to the future with optimism and excitement. But to ensure a workplace that remains dedicated to Spotify’s core values — collaboration, innovation, passion, playfulness, and sincerity — we have chosen to unionize with the Writers Guild of America, East.

Through collective bargaining, we hope to achieve growth in the following areas:

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion: A sincere commitment to creating a workplace as diverse and inclusive as the stories we tell.

Workload & Overtime: A reasonable workload that leaves time for playfulness and innovation.

Transparency & Compensation: Clear job descriptions, equitable compensation, transparent salary bands, and collaborative decision-making.

Creativity & Intellectual Property: An environment where the ideas and voices of our passionate creators are valued and respected.

We ask that Spotify recognize our union so that we might begin negotiating a contract.

Interestingly enough, this news comes about a week after I ran an interview with Lowell Peterson, the executive director of WGA East, about the state of collective bargaining in the podcast business. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t aware that this was in the works, and I’ll save you the gauche gesture of patting myself on the back. (My arms are too short, in any case.)

I’m thinking about two things. Firstly, with this announcement, all three podcast content studios acquired by Spotify are officially engaged in union organizing and collective bargaining pushes. It’s a fascinating turn of events, in that one of the most prominent capitalistic actors in the previously disparate podcast ecosystem is now home to multiple separate but connected unionizing labor forces. That Parcast has joined Gimlet and The Ringer in the act of organizing makes a ton of sense; of the three content studios, they seem to be ones that are pushing the most volume. (Indeed, there are ways in which Parcast often seems like a literal factory optimized for mass production. The GAP of podcasting, maybe?) Anyway, my understanding is that recognition is expected, and the best case scenario is one where we end up in a situation where Spotify’s leadership will view these union bodies as a normalized stakeholder in much the same way they’d view something like, say, advertisers as a stakeholder.

The second thing I’m thinking about is about the general grouping of this organizing body. I tend to view these pushes for media worker organizing as a broadly positive development, but there are layers I’m still trying to process. The most prominent one: the way in which these organizing pushes are chiefly concentrated in the creative layer of the labor force, and how they typically don’t include non-creative workers, like people on the business administration side. I reckon much of this has to do with the fact that the union is a creative worker’s union — the Writers Guild of America, East — but I’m interested to see whether we’ll see efforts from the non-creative side as well.

Also interested: will we ever see similar organizing efforts from Spotify’s most immediate competitors, like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM? Hm.

Speaking of Spotify…The Joe Rogan Experience officially hits Spotify. Forgot to mention this in Tuesday’s letter: it’s finally September, which means that the first phase of that big Joe Rogan talent deal kicks in, and the wildly popular podcast is now consumable on the Swedish audio platform. (Previously, the show had been one of the last major Spotify holdouts.) As a reminder, The Joe Rogan Experience continues to be available on Apple Podcasts and the universe of third-party podcast apps until the next phase of the deal kicks in at some point later this year, when it will become fully exclusive to Spotify.

Worth noting: there’s been some rockiness to the new availability. Here’s EW:

Joe Rogan made his Spotify debut on Tuesday, but apparently not all of his podcast episodes made the cut.

Dozens of past episodes with controversial guests are notably absent from the new Joe Rogan Experience channel, such as interviews with conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and David Seaman, far-right figures such as Owen Benjamin, Stefan Molyneux, Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes, Charles C. Johnson, and Sargon of Akkad, as well as comedian Chris D’Elia (who has recently been accused of sexual impropriety).

This is a tricky story. The most provocative reading is one that frames this as being connected to larger questions about Spotify’s relationship to content moderation and the politically explosive subject of censorship. Given that Rogan is generally associated with possessing a radical orientation around free speech, the absence of those specific types of episodes becomes easy fodder for certain right-wing and far-right elements to eagerly sound claims over the tyranny of speech-regulating media platforms.

Yet it is also the case that Rogan signed that deal, and I’m all but certain that there are particulars within the contract that addresses the specific issue of controversial speech — which could be interpreted as “hateful speech” by certain distribution platform policies — in his episodes, past and present. Which makes this a big “Huh, If True” situation, and the textures are such that I’m not sure that this might necessarily be a situation where these episodes are straight-up being kept off the platform due to speech regulation concerns; I’m open to the possibility that this could be something as banal as archive migration issues. Then again, maybe Occam’s Razor applies: dude made the trade-off when he signed that extremely lucrative deal.

It’s all speculation at this point, and Spotify doesn’t appear to be saying anything about this situation on the record. But the context vacuum is nonetheless a rich environment for the conspiratorially-inclined, and they are indeed chattering.

One last thing… In Tuesday’s newsletter, I briefly linked to that Daily Mail piece containing the rumor that Spotify was set to offer Meghan Markle and Prince Harry a seven-figure development deal, which made yesterday’s news that the two had signed a megadeal with Netflix a little more… flavorful, I guess?

Anyway, The New York Times’ write-up of the news regarded the speculation around a possible concurrent Spotify deal as well, and the piece observed that the move would be something of a lift from the Obamas’ playbook. In their post-presidential media entrepreneurial existence, the Obamas had signed development deals with both Netflix and Spotify through their production company, Higher Ground, and so the impression here seems to be one where the (former?) royals are looking at the Obamas as an operating model.

But I think it’s reasonable to possibly view this the other way around: is this Spotify following the Netflix playbook as well?Pete Buttipod. Fresh off standing around what appears to be an abandoned office building for the virtual DNC roll call, Pete Buttigieg is firming up his post-election campaign public presence by launching a podcast with iHeartMedia. The former 2020 hopeful’s show is called “The Deciding Decade,” the first guest is slated to be Preet Bharara, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York who, as it happens, also has his own podcast.

Here is The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr with further details:

Buttigieg’s podcast, which will run for 20 episodes, will not be the place to hear his take on the latest Trump controversy or political scandal, he cautioned. “The news of the day is punching us in the face every day,” he said. “We try to look at things in a slighter longer view than is just possible in a lot of the conversations across the news cycle.”

Now, I’m not going to make the tired, obvious joke about how every politician seems to have a podcast these days… because, on the one hand, it’s absolutely true, and on the other hand, I think it’s worth asking what all this implies.

This trend can be viewed as a continuation of something I wrote about in April 2019, back when the Democratic presidential hopefuls still numbered in the dozens and the race was on to find alternate ways to garner media time. Buttigieg in particular, along with Andrew Yang, ultimately favored podcasts as a way to access new attention — partly because there was less competition to get on a pod compared with TV, and partly because there’s an argument around demographic differentials — and the returns were presumably good enough that Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s communications adviser at the time, said on CNN’s Reliable Sources: “Podcasts are really hot right now, and I think underappreciated.”

But I have a feeling that this current crop of emergent politician podcasts — which also includes newer stuff like The Bakari Sellers podcast, launched out of The Ringer, as well as right-wing stuff, like the Ted Cruz pod — additionally gestures to another larger trend: the on-going blurring of the lines between podcasting and broadcast radio. It’s not all that uncommon to hear about politicians hitting the radio waves to stay relevant in the public conversation (indeed, right-wing talk radio is largely an incubator and holding ground for Republican candidates), and so it shouldn’t be that surprising to see a similar dynamic playing out here in podcasting.

One more quick thing before we wrap up: it is notable that the vast majority of these politician pods come from men. (Most noteworthy exception being, I suppose, The Michelle Obama Podcast, though one could argue against her designation as being a politician.) What’s that all about?