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Pocket Casts acquired by Automattic

The move was announced early Friday, with Automattic stating that the co-founders of the popular podcast app, Russell Ivanovic and Philip Simpson, will continue to lead the product after the change in ownership.

The terms of the deal were not made public. A spokesperson for Automattic noted that the company had no additional details to share beyond what’s mentioned in the official blog post on the matter, and a message by Ivanovic and Simpson sent out to its user base yesterday morning stated that they expect to share more details on what this transition for the app means over the coming weeks, and that they don’t expect users to notice any immediate changes to Pocket Casts for now.

That we’re seeing a change in ownership for Pocket Casts shouldn’t come as a surprise. Originally created about a decade ago when Ivanovic and Simpson were operating as the independent Australian mobile development firm Shifty Jelly, the app was eventually acquired by a consortium of public-radio organizations in the summer of 2018. The original participants of the consortium were NPR, WNYC Studios, Chicago Public Media, and This American Life, with BBC Studios Americas stepping in last March as a new investor. Despite strong initial optimism and a stated emphasis on experimentation — “We want to help make podcast discovery a better experience for listeners and its delivery and distribution more valuable to podcast creators,” Thomas Hjelm, then holding the role as NPR’s Chief Digital Officer, told me at the time — it never ended up being entirely clear what the consortium strategically had in mind with the app, which, in my understanding, continued to enjoy a strong following. In January, Current’s Tyler Falk reported that, less than a year after raising additional funds from BBC Studio Americas, the consortium agreed to sell off Pocket Casts to a new buyer. He also reported that the group was losing money on the app, drawing from NPR’s financial statement for the 2020 fiscal year to find that the public radio mothership had lost $800,000 on the app during that time period.

Pocket Casts now has a new home in Automattic, best known as the parent company behind the ubiquitous WordPress website-publishing platform. The company is also distinct for having made a string of somewhat quirky acquisitions of late: the once mighty Tumblr, the publishing platform (and digital magazine) Atavist, the journaling app Day One, and the content-analytics company Parse.ly. (Which, to be fair, is a much less quirky acquisition for a company dealing in content-management systems.) The Pocket Casts purchase isn’t Automattic’s first foray into audio in recent memory; back in January, WordPress.com had announced a partnership with Anchor that revolves around converting WordPress blogs into text-to-speech audio experiences that can be published through the Spotify-owned platform.

Speaking as a devoted user of the app, I’m crossing my fingers that Automattic will be a good home for Pocket Casts over the long term. Plus, given the continued brokenness of Apple Podcasts, any development that’s able to maintain, preserve, and strengthen alternatives to Spotify has never been more important.

One last thing. I think I’ve written about this before, but I believe we’re now deep into an era of podcasting where it’s highly unlikely third-party podcast apps can thrive — not independently, not without support of a much bigger platform, not without a strong pre-existing identity, community, or cult of personality behind it. There may still be some room to carve out defined niches, but I don’t know, even that prospect feels increasingly thin. A podcast app is fundamentally a gambit on infrastructure, and the pipes seem all tied up today.

Now, it’s easy for me — an external observer, analyst, columnist, is there anything more wretched than an armchair expert? — to say this, but I can’t help feeling that the whole consortium-owned Pocket Casts situation was such a missed opportunity for the intersection of public media and podcasting. Mark Coatney, a former director of Tumblr, once advocated for the idea of a PBS for social media, and here there had been a clear launchpad to do something of the sort in audio. To build, perhaps, truly public podcast infrastructure, a sub-ecosystem that could stand independent from and complementary to the for-profit world. The ghost has now been given up, and today, NPR is building the “next chapter” of its podcast business on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.