Issue 245,  published February 11, 2020

Major Podcast Acquisitions up to February 2020: Analysis

We should probably start at the beginning.

Last Wednesday saw the official announcement that Spotify, already the biggest buyer of podcast companies to date, was to make a fourth acquisition: The Ringer. I wrote about the deal in an extra newsletter, and mulled over the details a little more in Thursday’s Insider, where I noted that it wasn’t lost on me (and others) that the four podcast companies acquired by Spotify were all founded by… well, white dudes.

I planned to follow up by writing a whole column about the significance of (and trouble with) this data point for this newsletter. But as I started drafting, it occurred to me that I haven’t made an inventory of all podcast acquisitions in a while. So I dug back through the archives to do just that, while sending out a couple of emails and messages along with a tweet to check for significant omissions.

A handful of helpful replies and dad jokes later, this is what I roughly came up with:

Updated: February 15, 2020

A few reading notes: first, I’m using 2014 as a starting point, partly because that’s when I started writing about pods, and consequently because of a narcissistic proclivity to view it as the start of “modern” podcasting. (The potential non-narcissistic argument would be, well, Serial.) Second, the acquisition numbers as reported and listed in the spreadsheet shouldn’t always be taken in a straightforward manner, as they sometimes connote cash paid plus potential payouts based on performance. Third, The Ringer’s acquisition sum is listed as TBD, pending reliable reports, but the working assumption is that the number will almost certainly beat the $100 million that was asked in a previously reported negotiation with Turner by a significant margin. Fourth, I left out the Barstool sale, because it doesn’t strike me as a podcast-first acquisition. Fifth, I didn’t differentiate between content and technology companies, though I can recognize the argument for doing so. Some other time, perhaps. Finally, I grouped the Pop-Up Archive, Pocket Casts, and Castro acquisitions together and pulled them out separately, mostly because I couldn’t find any reported acquisition amount and partly because I’m guessing those sums were likely on the smaller side. (Feel free to disabuse me of this notion. My inbox is always open.)

So, with all the working laid out, it’s time to reiterate something we already knew: far beyond just Spotify, the overwhelming majority of all podcast company acquisitions that have taken place since 2014 were either founded by white dudes or featured an executive team of primarily white dudes during time of purchase. To frame it another way: it would seem that almost all financial beneficiaries of this recent spate of podcast acquisitions all come from the same historically-advantaged demographic. (Shout-out to half of Pineapple Street and Pop-Up Archive for being the exceptions in this trend.)

I should show my cards: for what it’s worth, I don’t personally subscribe to the perspective that acquisitions should necessarily be taken as good or desired outcomes. That’s just me. The way I see things, acquisitions are part of a wider spectrum of potential economic opportunity afforded by this new media ecosystem; other pathways for financial value creation would include, say, lucrative production partnerships and deals, long-term independent ownership of a sustainable revenue-generating operation, or going public (in the rare event that ever happens for a podcast company), among others.

But acquisitions often represent the quickest method of wealth-generation for entrepreneurs. This is significant, in part because, to phrase things very simplistically, wealth translates into power. To unpack specifically: wealth conferred via acquisition in an emerging industry context like podcasting also translates into industry-shaping power, so it’s exceptionally noteworthy that one specific demographic — again, the very same demo that has had historical advantages in all other aspects of the economy — seems to be accruing the bulk of that industry-shaping power at a time when the podcast industry is still eminently moldable.

For better or worse, my default lens has always been to view podcasting as fertile land for new realities in media entrepreneurship. The core promise is that it affords people who were previously shut out of conventional media systems the opportunity to participate in the process and returns of media entrepreneurship. From that standpoint, it’s hard for me to view this trend, which shows no sign of changing direction, as anything but an alarming under-realization of that promise.

Let’s be clear: my point isn’t to take away anything from the achievements of those who have actually sold their companies. In almost (almost!) every case, I can see viable arguments as to the strategic value in those deals. Rather, my purpose is to highlight the fact that we haven’t seen more acquisitions of podcast companies founded by women or people of color just yet, when quite a few of them do indeed exist right now.

And because I’ve heard it before, I’m aware of the potential counter-argument that can get passed around on this point: the notion that the acquired companies were generally at a more “advanced” stage such they were able to provide value compared to those that haven’t been acquired. Come on. Looking at the full spread, you know that isn’t always the case.

There’s little mystery as to why this happens. Part of it is rooted in the nature of the companies doing the acquiring; it’s been said that there’s a structural tendency for leadership teams to lead acquisitions of companies with similarly-styled leadership teams. This state of affairs is further exacerbated by what happens on the flip-side: consider that, for a number of reasons, entrepreneurial opportunity isn’t equally or equitably distributed among women and people of color.

Again, this whole thing about the distribution of podcast riches is significant because it also means that podcast industry-shaping power — by virtue of decision-making, investing, resource allocation, and so on — is being structurally allocated among the same kinds of people that have always held that kind of power in other places, a situation that holds especially more weight when it’s happening in an industry whose identity, composition, narrative can still be rigorously shaped. This is a crucial time, and the risk of what happens from here is a situation where that structure of power continues to replicate itself, bringing podcasting to a place where it ingests the same gender and racial opportunity gaps found in all other older media industries, when those gaps could well have been tackled from the get-go.

(Again, I really don’t want to further gas up the idea that an acquisition is the ideal endpoint of any entrepreneurial context. Gah.)

Smarter writers than I have argued elsewhere — vitally, robustly, rightly — about the myriad reasons for diversifying decision-making ranks at levels, whether you’re looking through the lens of equity, efficiency, ethics, and so on. Personally, I tend to hold stock in the idea that the fundamental limitation of leadership teams made up of only one type of person lies in their inability to understand and therefore serve people outside of their own demographic contexts. Which means that those companies, and the industries they collectively make up, would be less able to adequately serve a wider range of people who could well benefit from their products/programs.

The thing that most arrests me about this bugaboo is the familiarity of it all. We’re having versions of this exact conversation in any number of other arenas: public radio, Hollywood, book publishing, #sports, the art world, politics, yadda yadda yadda. And what we’re seeing with this spate of podcast acquisitions feels like a frontier of squandered opportunity. This trend directly contributes to the replication of a power disparity in a context that could’ve started in a more progressive state. Again, sure, acquisitions aren’t everything, but they are meaningful, which is why if we don’t see any conscious counter-balancing of the trend, we’re set for a shittier, albeit familiar, world.

Then again, here’s something I’ve also been hearing with increasing frequency: so what if podcasting is shaping up to look like everything else? What ever gave it the potential to be any different? Good question. You tell me.

I run this thing.