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What, exactly, is on the horizon for podcasts on Spotify?

Plus: A Q&A with Anchor

Happy Friday, all. The sky is finally pleasant outside, none of that nonsense where it looks like it’s snowing but actually it’s raining but actually it’s just an outrageous weather system reminding you that you’re never in control of anything so you might as well just sit your ass down in the terminal gate and let the cold, wet dark take over the next 48 hours.

Anyway. It seems to me like these Hot Pod Extras are increasingly well-timed for news and announcements regarding platforms. Last week, Pandora’s “Podcast Genome” trial balloon caught our eye, and today we’re wading through the implications of Spotify’s introduction of its new “Spotlight” program. Let’s start there.

Maybe video podcasts mean something after all. So yes, Spotify is indeed moving ahead with the podcast-slash-non-music audio machinations that they’ve been tinkering with, which I suppose was a little up in the air in the wake of the turnover in the role that oversees the music streaming platform’s video and podcasts operations. Courtney Holt, formerly the head honcho at the YouTube MCN Maker Studios, took over the position in September, not too long after the departure of Tom Calderone following a less than satisfactory start to Spotify’s non-music initiatives. The early podcast machinations on the platform involved a couple of things, notably: some original programming, windowing arrangements with Gimlet and WNYC Studios, and curious experimentation around nomenclature (the UI initially ran with the notion of “Shows” before ultimately reverting back to “Podcasts”).

When Calderone left, I personally thought it was fifty-fifty on whether we’d see any further investment in the initiative — or whether we’ll see a scrapping of the enterprise entirely. This week’s announcement doesn’t quite flush away those ambiguities for me just yet, but the specificity and quirks of the larger idea is nonetheless eye-catching. The Big Idea is to flesh out a whole new media presentation format altogether (in a manner not unlike how Snap cultivated its own personal media format — tough week for Snap, by the way — or, like, fuckin’ Twitter and tweets), which is essentially the layering on of minor visual accompaniments to audio assets of various stripes. (Seems to me like we’ve already seen a germ of this with how Genius’ lyrics decoder is layered onto the app experience.) (Another side note: opens up the opportunity for them to define their own ad format/value narrative.) Anyway, some other key details from the company blog post:

  • “Spotlight will launch with content from the following Spotify partners including BuzzFeed News, Cheddar, Crooked Media, Lenny Letter, Gimlet Media, Genius, The Minefield Girl, Refinery29 and Uninterrupted.” Bet you ten bucks Uninterrupted, in particular, will do very well in this context.
  • More in-house originals: “Additionally, Spotlight will feature content from some of Spotify’s own original series such as RISE, Secret Genius, Spotify Singles and the new Viva Latino podcast.”
  • “Additional series will be launching throughout the month of February.”

Lucas Shaw, Bloomberg reporter and Hollywood Torrent newsletter writer, has the following key framing on the program:

Spotify, the world’s largest paid music service, will begin offering news and political coverage to lure listeners away from radio and podcasts from rival Apple Inc.

Eight companies, including BuzzFeed and Refinery29, have agreed to produce programming for the new initiative, called Spotlight. One of the first shows will be a four- to seven-minute daily newscast featuring reporting from BuzzFeed journalists across the globe. Spotlight will only be available to customers in the U.S. at first…

… Some of the programs will be versions of podcasts already available on the service and will initially contain the same ads. Other programs won’t have ads during the initial testing phase. The way podcasts are presented will be enhanced to let listeners more easily skip between different stories and topics, Holt said. They’ll also include visuals.

A couple of thoughts just off the top of my head:

  • I’d quibble with Shaw’s framing a little bit: this is much less about luring listeners away from Apple and more about Spotify deepening their engagement and growing their overall pie. (And, perhaps as an indirect consequence, growing the overall on-demand talk audio pie altogether.)
  • The whole “layering small visuals over the audio experience” thing reminds me of Acast’s initial innovation gambit. My sense is that that never really gained any meaningful traction, but that’s probably not going to tell us anything about what’s going to happen to Spotify. Acast, after all, had the overarching hurdle of getting people to get on its platform in the first place; in contrast, Spotify has already won that fight.
  • Just a reminder that Spotify is gunning for an IPO this year.
  • I get the sense that Spotify’s fortuitous experience with its Rap Caviar playlist looms over this initiative. Aside from being an unexpected source of culture-production, it’s also the one site within the platform that weaves together multimedia experiences… and fairly well, I might add.
  • It’s unclear to me how, or if, this will change Spotify’s current treatment of podcasts that have already been accepted on its platform. (Also a reminder that it’s not an open ecosystem.)
  • One more thing: “Spotlight” seems really well positioned to be an intriguing experience on the Amazon Echo Show, the variation on Amazon’s smart speaker line that features a light screen component.

Full Q&A with Anchor’s John Lagomarsino and Mike Mignano. In this week’s issue, I wrote about Lagomarsino moving from The Outline to Anchor to serve as its new Head of Production. Figured I’d run the whole Q&A I had with him, and his new boss Mike Mignano, just in case there’s stuff in here that might be useful to you that didn’t end up being added to the newsletter version.

John Lagomarsino

Me: Tell me about what you’re going to do at Anchor.

John: I’m really excited about this role because it allows me to blend my background in audio production with creating products for a mission I believe in: making it easier to create and listen to great audio.

I’ll be working closely with product, marketing, and content to make sure Anchor’s tools enable really great content – that means working on ways to better create, distribute, and listen. I’ll also be working with creators themselves, to get a sense of where the pain points are in podcast creation, and help them make the best shows they can. Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners.

What is the Anchor audience? Or the Anchor user base, or constituency? Who uses Anchor?

I’ve been using Anchor since version 1, and over time I’ve been struck by how diverse the user base really is. You can hear novice storytellers, up-and-coming podcasters, and established names like Pod Save America and Blimey Cow. Basically, there’s an Anchor station for anything you’re interested in, and what’s also cool is that those stations are interactive and allow dialogue between creators and listeners in real time.

What’s also really exciting to me is the number of people who have started using Anchor because it’s the easiest path to making a podcast.. There are plenty of folks out there who come from, say, the world of text, who would be great podcasters but are allergic to terms like “RSS” and “hosting.” Anchor’s done a really great job of streamlining the process of recording and hosting a show. So I’d also say that the audience for the Anchor product is also podcasters who want to get started but haven’t known how.

What IS Anchor? I have a tough time describing it in shorthand, and I’ve often viewed it as another podcast app. But this seems like a shift. How should we think about it?

Anchor is the easiest way to make a podcast.

Our aim is to provide tools that lighten the load of creating and sharing audio content. Essentially, you have YouTube for videos, Squarespace for websites, Instagram for photos, Twitter for text, and Anchor for audio.

Traditionally when you think of podcast production, you imagine recording equipment, a digital audio workstation, complicated double ender setups for interviews, and all of that. Anchor moves a lot of that onto your phone. You can accept call-ins from your audience (basically audio comments) and publish the ones you want your listeners to hear, record with up to ten guests simultaneously, add audio interludes and even music through Spotify and Apple Music integrations, upload your own pre-recorded clips or episodes directly, and distribute that content on all the major podcasting platforms (Apple Podcasts, Google Play, etc.).

And Anchor is built for both creators and listeners – so, in addition to recording your own podcast, you can listen to shows and engage with them right from the same app.

Mike Mignano

What does John’s hire mean for the company? Does this indicate some sort of shift or pivot for Anchor?

Anchor’s goal has always been the same: to make it easy for anyone create audio, regardless of experience. But there’s more to this mission than just building great tools that enable easy content creation. We also want the content to be best in class through the experience of people who have done this before, both on the Anchor team and through the support of the greater Anchor community. Bringing John on board will enable us to help users make better content and get the most out of the Anchor platform. So this isn’t a shift so much as it is an enhancement, a way to support and strengthen Anchor’s creators through John’s incredible experience and talent as a producer.

You guys raised $10 million recently. What will that money be focused on?

Looking ahead, we’re going to be using this round to grow the team and further product development. We believe that NYC is filled with incredibly talented and creative people, and since closing the round, we’ve already added a number of key team members, including John and Dave Altarescu, who joined in October 2017 as our VP of Marketing after heading up U.S. marketing at Spotify, as well as new team members in product design and web engineering.

We’ve also recently released a host of audio-first features in the second half of 2017 and have a lot more coming up soon that will further strengthen Anchor’s product offerings for both creators and listeners alike. Stay tuned, because we’re just getting started.

I’d love to hear what you think about the current landscape of podcast apps and platforms. At what point of the stack do you think requires more innovation, and what do you think the podcast technology stack looks like two years from now?

We believe the entire technology stack of podcasting needs to be reimagined.

We’re in the midst of this cultural shift where everyone is creating many different types of content all the time, including text, photos, and videos, because most content creation has been democratized. But not audio…yet. That said, the demand for podcasts has spiked in recent years and is only going to increase as more listeners (and advertisers) make the leap from outdated formats to digital. The recent rise of new podcasting services, including some of the ones you mentioned, is a testament to that. But the reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to.

Most of these players are simply optimizing workflows inside of an outdated ecosystem, creating a cycle that caps the upside of the business as a whole. Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.

With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.