published January 21, 2020

Ringer/Spotify

On Friday evening, at the top of a long weekend — a time slot known in some cultures as “News Dump O’ Clock” — the Wall Street Journal dropped a mighty curious story with considerable implications for podcast-land: Spotify, the story reported, appears to be in “early talks” to acquire The Ringer, the distinctly podcast-heavy digital media company founded by former ESPN personality Bill Simmons.

The key word here being “early,” with the Journal noting that sources close to the matter cautioned that these discussions may not ultimately result in a deal. Also worth flagging: a mention that Spotify is still in the hunt for more assets to pick up, and that The Ringer is one of many possibilities. Spotify, for their part, declined to comment “on rumors and speculation,” when contacted by CNN’s Kerry Flynn.

So, I didn’t drop an extra newsletter when the news came out — come on, it was Friday evening! Let me live! — but I did write a short thing on the development for Vulture, because, apparently, I don’t actually have a life.

It’s a curious story, given the timing of the drop and the supposedly early nature of the talks. This is the kind of news dump that’s fertile for speculation: what’s the likelihood of this coming through? Why was this report dropped on a Friday evening before a long weekend? Is it a trial balloon to see how folks would react? Was it a leak for leverage? What’s going to happen to the non-audio components of The Ringer? If the purchase does happen, will it definitely mean the end of The Ringer’s written operation, the segment that’s most fraught on the internet these days and one that the Swedish music streaming company has virtually no background in? Will we see The Bill Simmons Podcast go exclusive? Yaaaadda yaaadda yaaadda.

Spicy questions, all, but all sightly pointless in the moment, since a deal may not actually come through. So what I’d like to do, instead, is re-frame the approach and lay out why I think this move would make a ton of sense for Spotify.

Let’s start with the big picture. So, Spotify’s context in all has been much discussed already: currently in the midst of a hard push to becoming an all-consuming audio platform, the Swedish company has already spent more than $400 million acquiring three podcast companies — Gimlet, Parcast, and Anchor — and has additionally engaged in several exclusive partnerships, including one with the Obamas, as part of a process to bolster its original programming slate. Earlier this month saw the company announce the roll-out of its own podcast advertising technology, called Streaming Ad Insertion (SAI), which represents an effort to strengthen its position on the podcast monetization side, a long-time gap in this ecosystem. To re-state in summary, Spotify wants to build out a strong on-platform podcast market, and as such it’s working really hard to increase its value on all sides of the market; for listeners (via originals and simply expanding catalog inventory), for creators (via SAI and potential new listeners), and for advertisers (also via SAI and potential listeners).

Acquiring The Ringer, and its audio operation in particular, would fit pretty neatly into this multi-sided pursuit. I suppose the main way I’d describe The Ringer is to regard it as a prominent digital media company (and brand) that’s been especially successful — more so than most of its peers — on the audio side. The Wall Street Journal article reported that The Ringer’s audio division, which boasts more than 30 podcasts, brings in more than 100 million downloads a month (!), and an earlier Journal report from January 2019 noted that the audio side beat $15 million in ad sales in 2018. It’s unclear just how much of The Ringer’s overall business is made up of its audio revenue, but whatever the breakdown, it seems pretty clear that we can consider it a “core” part of the business. (For what it’s worth, I went back and forth on whether to describe The Ringer’s audio-centrism “unique,” largely due to the existence of Slate, whose business, as I wrote last week, is now about 50% audio.)

The Ringer has always struck me as a business that was built to sell — among the data points informing this view, justly or otherwise, is the relatively rapid nature of its headcount growth; that earlier WSJ report from January 2019 noted that the headcount was expected to hit 100 by the end of that year, which seems crazy fast given its 2016 founding — and the history of the hubbub around the company bears that out. As the dude Peter Kafka noted in his analysis of the report over at Vox (which resonates with me, by the way, go check it out), there were talks last year of a sale to WarnerMedia (now the owner of HBO; worth noting that HBO backed The Ringer when the latter first launched). Those talks didn’t ultimately pan out, but it nonetheless underscores the point: we’re not talking about a Radiotopia here.

From a hard numbers standpoint, picking up The Ringer’s prolific podcast network — with a mix of very popular shows (like the Bill Simmons Podcast, The Rewatchables, and Binge Mode) and an ever-expanding universe of niche fare — would vastly increase the number of (relatively cost-effective, not always but still) talk-style podcasts in Spotify original programming portfolio, which, aside from The Joe Budden Podcast and the Amy Schumer show, has come to skew more narrative-ish. That network also happens to be one that’s guaranteed to generate considerable revenue right off the bat, which wasn’t necessarily the case with some of the other podcast deals Spotify has made thus far.

Furthermore, on top of the actual shows themselves, Spotify would be acquiring an operation that not only knows how to produce talk programming at some modicum of scale, but one that has a track record of (1) being consistently experimental and innovative; (2) being really fast in going from idea to execution to iteration; and (3) being able to tap into the audience development potential of its podcast operation as a network. (Which, interestingly, doesn’t appear to be something that very many multiple-show publishers have mastered.) You could also make the argument that, depending on how the branding arrangement works out, The Ringer could theoretically give Spotify the ability to touch an expanding range of subject areas they would otherwise have to spend time and resources build in-house programming expertise in: movies, television, sports, celebrity culture, and so on.

It’s tempting to make a rather crude comparison at this point — that in Bill Simmons, Spotify could have its own Howard Stern equivalent, i.e. a figure with a big enough following that could very well substantiate a walled garden strategy. But that analogy would be limiting, given the nature of Simmons’ influence extends beyond a single show towards a wider network and cadre of talent. And so, if you’re thinking about making any spot 1:1 SiriusXM-Spotify analyses, I’d recommend against it. That might make sense if we’re talking about a Spotify-Joe Rogan deal, but this is a different animal.

(Also, not for nothing, but I do think there’s value in The Ringer being… uncontroversial. Compared to, like, Barstool Sports — which now might be sold to a sports betting company — along with the aforementioned Rogan and Stern. Is Stern still controversial? Maybe not.)

Anyway, let us again recognize the possibility that nothing might come from this report, and that there’s a fair amount of devil in the details to be hammered out. (Hammer devils? Whatever. I don’t have the luxury of a long weekend.)

First and foremost would be the fate of every other non-audio aspect of The Ringer, of which there are many. As I noted out in my brief Vulture write-up, the company also has an editorial website, a book-publishing deal, a documentary unit, and an active YouTube operation, among other things. Now, I’m biased as a creature of the written web, but I’d argue that it would be in the acquirer’s interest to retain and invest in those aspects, if only due to my strong belief in many of the core ideas laid out in Ben Thompson’s November 2015 piece “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” (Yep, the Grantland-Ringer connection is acknowledged.) Chief among them: the notion that, in the current digital media context, different media formats can be operationalized to perform different functions for the connected whole. While audio might be the core engine from a business model perspective, stuff like written work, YouTube videos, and docs can be understood as potent lead-generating frontiers.

Another detail to watch would be on the labor front. Specifically, the fact that The Ringer has a fairly large stable of writers and creatives that have unionized with WGA East, which mirrors Gimlet Media, whose workforce has also unionized with WGA East. Now, Spotify has a stock response to union stuff, dating back to the March 2019 Gimlet union push, that goes along the lines of “We’re Swedish! We give great benefits! We love unions!” Which, I don’t know, has always given me Midsommar-esque vibes, but there hasn’t been anything to suggest friction on this matter by Spotify management. For now, anyway. (And to be clear: I’m distinguishing Spotify management from Gimlet management in this instance.)

Moving on, I should say I’ve already seen some discussion around what an acquisition would mean from an exclusivity-standpoint. That is, will Spotify pull a full SiriusXM vis-à-vis Howard Stern, and pull the highly-trafficked Bill Simmons Podcast behind its walled garden, perhaps as a direct shot to Apple Podcasts? So, I can’t help feeling that the long arc of capitalism tends to bend towards this type of power jockeying, but I suspect we won’t see that for a while. After all, most of Spotify’s original podcast portfolio is still available widely. But I do think we’ll see a ton of experimentation, with the Ringer podcasts being the lead guinea pigs. And I also think that a successful acquisition would probably mean the end of Ringer engagements on Luminary.

Before wrapping this super long column up, I feel compelled to show my cards: I write all of this as a massive consumer of The Ringer’s podcast content. From that perspective, I think I hold the view that, if the fate of The Ringer isn’t to be an independent self-sustaining media operation over the long term, then I’d rather see it be gobbled up by a company that takes on-demand audio seriously than a more traditionally-rooted media conglomerate that would… need more time and experience, let’s say, to properly contextualize that business.

I’m going to skip bringing up the Apple v Spotify angle, but I will, nevertheless, flag that Cupertino appears to be hiring for a role in its Business Planning team that will be “involved in the day-to-day running of Apple Music & Apple Podcasts.”