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Insider: Serial Productions exploring a sale? What?

We find ourselves in the midst of a most peculiar moment.

We find ourselves in the midst of a curious moment, one marked by two podcast scoops in less than a week by the intrepid folks over the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday’s report, much like The Ringer piece from Friday evening, comes almost on string: citing “a person familiar with the matter,” the Journal wrote that Serial Productions is exploring a sale. Multiple potential suitors were evoked, but only one was named — the New York Times. Neither party provided a comment on the record, and details were scant to non-existent. There was no mention of Serial Productions’ revenues, valuation, or general financial position. All we were really given, at the end of the day, is a simple confirmation that the company was shopping itself around and that, should a Times deal materialize, it would likely be on the small side.

As with The Ringer story, you’re well within your rights to spiral over the meta-context of the report: was it leak? Was it for leverage? Was it unintended coverage? Yadda yadda yadda. I’m going to stick to pattern, and just go over the extent to which this pursuit of a sale — and a potential Times acquisition — makes sense.

Let’s start with some context, just so we’re both on the same page. As you might already know, Serial Productions is the entity that houses Serial and S-Town, along with whatever future projects they have currently cooking in the pipeline. As an organizational matter, Serial Productions is a spin-off entity from This American Life, which is to say that they are completely separate entities. (I thought this is pretty important to note, because I’m already seeing some under-informed discourse about TAL’s relation to any potential Serial Productions deal.) My understanding is that Serial Productions is co-owned by Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, and Ira Glass. There’s some talent flow that happens between the two entities: if you take the case of S-Town, you have a situation where S-Town creator and TAL producer Brian Reed was able to seamlessly shift between the two companies. Now, this might not matter a damn thing, but the last time I checked in with someone at SP, it was expressed that folks seemed pretty content with their financial position. Then again, one never truly knows what’s in the heart of others.

Alright, with all that out of the way: so, I suppose I should say that I’ve heard rumors about a shopping around for a few weeks now. But I would also concede that, in my general flow of daily information, almost every company — and I mean that literally — has gone through the “oh they’re looking for a buyer” kind of thing. Which may or may not be true in all cases; what it has told me so far is that either (a) there’s a certain deal-making mania happening right now, or (b) there’s a certain spike in interest around deal-making right now. Anyway, with this specific rumor, I almost instantly ignored it, simply because a Serial Productions-NYT deal made little sense to me. Business sense, I should say, though I’ll recognize that (a) I’m an idiot, as I’ve been told numerous times in the past, and (b) deal-making often has less to do with business sense than one might want to believe. With this Journal article, that specific rumor has evolved into a development on-paper. And honestly, I remain on the same boat — this shit still strikes me as super weird!

On the Serial side, consider that we’re talking about a company that holds what is arguably the most valuable podcast IP of all time — not to mention all that attendant cultural significance and legacy attached to its now legendary first-season run. As such, ownership over that property would presumably be a valuable position to maintain, if only for the potential to create value from future derivative and affiliated products over the longer term. And if you were to cede that ownership, it should presumably be for an opportunity to max out a return that would far exceed whatever its hard on-paper value could be right now. Furthermore, I imagine there’s still some decent amount of value that can be generated by the long-tail of the Serial podcast feed itself, enabled by dynamic ad insertion. So with those two pieces — a near-unmatched piece of intellectual property on the one hand, and a presumably still-working long-tail revenue engine on the other — as your starting point, there should be a really compelling reason if we’re talking about these folks getting involved with what is “likely a small deal” that would probably require giving up ownership, independence, and freedom.

And so the math in my head would be: either the offer should be really, really good — in which case the estimation in the Journal article would be off — or there’s something really, really off with SP’s position. Like a Howie Ratner-sized hole off. (Spiritually, not literally. Didn’t he owe, like, just six figures or something? Anyway.) The point was raised to me that a reason could be something simple as a need for liquidity, in which case, like, fine, but there are always alternative mechanisms for raising funds that should considered especially when we’re talking about an asset as unique as this.

(Meanwhile, there’s not much to talk about re: the NYT side. Who wouldn’t want to pick up this creative team and portfolio, even if you already have an increasingly popular and powerful audio division? ¯_(ツ)_/¯)

Again, these are mere ~business considerations~, and indeed, there are always human factors at play to consider. Maybe you just want out of the market. Maybe you just want a bigger (organizational) home. Speaking as a small business owner, it really really sucks to run your own business sometimes. (And look, I’ve explored deals that most folks would probably advise against in the past just so I can put myself out of my misery, I get it.) And maybe, just maybe, there’s something to be said about a yearning for a very contemporary form of validation in an age of Big Podcast Acquisitions.

So, I don’t get it, but I also get it. Assuming, of course, what we’re talking about is actually what’s happening. Which, I don’t know, I tend to trust my guy Ben Mullin, but something’s tingling.

Oh shit, we spent too long on this. Let’s quickly go over some other things.