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Insider: September 5, 2019

- Axios: Himalaya might not actually have $100 million in funding - Sword and Scale creator threatens legal action against the creator of Obscura - NPR's Morning Edition can now be streamed over Alexa smart speakers, local content included

$100 million podcast startup probably isn’t what it says it is.

This is bullshit mountain, right here.

On Tuesday, Axios published a wildly unflattering piece on Himalaya, the San Francisco-based podcast startup with ties to the Chinese audio giant Ximalaya FM. Specifically, the report, written by Dan Primack and Sara Fischer, raised the strong possibility that the company appears to have provided an inaccurate narrative about its funding status to the press and the public. In February, the company made a press push where it announced that it had raised $100 million in funds from a pool of investors that included General Atlantic, SIG, and Ximalaya.

The whole article is absolutely worth reading in its entirety, as it lays out, over the course of a few bullet points, a story that feels like a cross between an episode of Silicon Valley and an episode of Veep. It’s hard to walk away from the article without thinking that there’s something seriously up.

According to Axios, General Atlantic never invested directly in Himalaya, but instead, in its parent company Ximalaya. Ximalaya, which supposedly has 500 million users nowadays (in so far as you can trust China-based companies on statements like these), is said to be the primary investor in Himalaya. The report also noted that Ximalaya and SIG never got back to Axios when it reached out for comment about their positions regarding Himalaya.

All of which is to say: that $100 million number was very likely the product of an exaggerated, misleading press push, and it is unclear how much cash on hand Himalaya actually has.

The significance of this story is fairly straightforward. As Primack and Fischer point out, “for startups, funding equals credibility,” meaning that a fundraise often serves as a signal of confidence by a pool of investors that’s materially relevant in the marketplace, as it theoretically becomes a worthwhile trust factor that can drive partnerships. If I was, say, a potential partner for a given startup, as part of my assessment I would at the fact that said startup was able to raise funds from credible partners, which I can take to mean that others have viewed the startup as safe and valuable to deal with.

What we have here, then, is a situation where a podcast startup appears to have misrepresented itself — whether willingly or otherwise — which should be cause for concern, or at least reassessment, for anybody who has already struck up a partnership with them. To put it in more simple terms: given the fuzziness around Himalaya’s funding position and the way the company handled its self-representation, why the hell should anyone trust this company?

For what it’s worth, I can’t say I’m surprised about this development. Here’s what I wrote back in February, when the company first drove its press push:

Here’s my immediate feeling on this: $100 million in funding for a largely un-established podcast company that doesn’t yet have a verifiable track record in obtaining users, creating shows, and driving revenues for creators? What the fuck is going on?

Not that I should pat myself on the back, of course. This isn’t a great situation for anybody that has already struck a deal with Himalaya, and while I’ve generally expressed my reservations through an editorial decision to largely ignore the company in my own coverage, I should have pushed the point harder that there were deep red flags regarding this startup.

Two immediate takeaways to draw. Firstly, if a number looks weird, then it’s probably weird. Secondly, and not to sound anti-globalization or whatever, but companies with foreign ties… well, they often come with additional baggage. And they’re often not what they seem.

That’s just my read, anyway.

Petty. From The Verge, off a piece that also dropped on Tuesday:

Mike Boudet, host of the true crime podcast Sword and Scale, is threatening legal action against another true crime podcast host who claimed Boudet bombarded him with one-star reviews on Apple Podcasts.

Justin Drown, the host of Obscura, made the allegations in comments to The Verge that were published last week. Boudet didn’t respond to a request for comment at the time, and Boudet and his lawyers didn’t respond to a request for comment on this article.

This is… I guess, sort of a follow-up to The Verge’s story on the weaponization of one-star reviews on Apple Podcasts, which used Drown’s claim as the lead anecdote to the piece. Specifically, Drown had speculated that he was a target of a coordinated sabotage campaign by Boudet, which appeared to have started up shortly a newspaper profile of his show, in which Drown had criticized Boudet’s podcast, was published.

More appropriately, though, it’s another installment of the continuing controversies surrounding Boudet, who has a history of deeply questionable behavior and whose podcast was dropped by Wondery after he published misogynistic comments on the show’s official Instagram account.

NPR Morning Edition now on Alexa, local content included. Starting this week, owners of Alexa-enabled smart speakers can start streaming NPR’s Morning Edition right off their devices. More importantly: that experience will include local segments, which means that local member stations get to benefit from this arrangement that NPR has struck up with Amazon.

From the official announcement:

NPR Member stations across the country are participating, including stations in all of the top 50 media markets. This means that the on-demand experience of Morning Edition, with its original national and local news segments, will be available on Alexa-enabled smart speakers each weekday from 7am to 3pm local time. (Outside of this timeframe listeners will hear their live station stream.)

Folks interested in the technical aspects of this arrangement should check out this Medium post by NPR’s technology team, which the approach and workflow. Of specific note: the approach uses the Australia-based Omny Studio podcast hosting platform, which was acquired by Triton Digital back in June. Triton Digital, by the way, is NPR’s primary online audio distribution technology solution, and has been since 2016. It’s probably safe to assume that this need — to figure out how to recreate the local-national bundle for distribution over emerging digital platforms — drove this acquisition.

Obviously, this shit is VEEEERRYYYY my jam, and so I’m probably going to do more on this on next Tuesday’s issue.

Two additional things to keep in mind about this story:

  • I’m curious about how the analytics would work, particularly for the local member stations that participate in this arrangement. Also: monetization.
  • One should also recall the baseline privacy concerns around smart speakers in general… though that doesn’t seem to be impeding adoption.

More, hopefully, on Tuesday.

Two other smart speaker stories…

(1) From TechCrunch, citing numbers from a new Canalys report: “Google falls to third place in worldwide smart speaker market.” In second place is the smart speaker product from China’s Baidu — which I’m sure totally doesn’t have any privacy issues whatsoever — whose shipments apparently grew 3,700% in Q2 to reach 4.5 million units, above Google’s 4.3 million shipped units in the same period. Amazon stills sits pretty in first place at 6.6 million shipped unit.

(2) Fast Company has an interesting look at the Alexa experience that’s being developed for the connected car. (Remember them? Yep, it’s still important.)

One more thing… Three Uncanny Four, the joint Sony Music-Adam Davidson-Laura Mayer venture, has announced its first headlining project: a weekly documentary series on Jeffrey Epstein. It’s hosted by The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy, and the Hollywood producer Adam McKay, who last collaborated with Davidson on Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, is also attached to the project. The podcast got the New York Times press release treatment, and it debuts today.

On a related note, I lost a bet on how much time we had before we got an Epstein podcast. I bet the over… and lost by about five days.