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Since we last left you…

Podcast-land saw the release of two extremely high profile projects: The Michelle Obama Podcast and Nice White Parents. July turned out to be really busy this year, which wasn’t really the case last summer. Then again, we didn’t have a pandemic this time last year. Oh boy.

A few brief notes on those two launches. The Michelle Obama Podcast is the first show from that buzzy exclusive partnership between Spotify and the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, which was originally announced over a year ago.

I have a write-up of the show for Vulture in the pipeline, but for now, one thing I’m really thinking about is the ad experience. Michelle Obama doesn’t do host-reads, obviously, and the show has turned to glossy pre-produced spots to promote major brand clients like Tide. To my ears, those spots sound a little more like traditional radio ads than anything else, even contrasting the ads that Spotify had been running through their original stuff under the Spotify Studios banner. (You know, the ones with the Breakmaster Cylinder-style chip beat laid under them, historically found on Startup and Reply All.)

This process of Spotify tweaking and adjusting the ad experience is worth watching closely. The company is all but certain to lean heavily on advertising to efficiently monetize podcasts on its platform at scale. (See: Streaming Ad Insertion.) What we see on The Michelle Obama Podcast is likely a major representation of where the platform’s head is at with respect to how the premium ads are supposed to feel. The podcast is, after all, Spotify’s most ~premium~ show at the moment.

One big thing this raises is how Spotify’s various machinations on this advertising front will ultimately reshape podcast advertising executions and expectations moving forward. The host-read ad has long been the unit of choice for podcast advertising, and while there are some efforts to retain that positioning and reorient it for scale (see: Gumball), it’s safe to say that we’ll see other vociferous arguments as to what the future of podcast advertising supposed to look like. Ad aesthetics will change within a Spotify-dominant context, as it is adapted to accommodate the pressures of scale and bigger brand needs. The question is how.

On a separate but related note, I have to say: my brain is dealing with some real Uncanny Valley stuff when it comes to advertising and The Michelle Obama Podcast. For one thing, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around hearing Michelle Obama talking about community and protests and then hard-cutting to a commercial for a laundry detergent. The standard surreality of modern capitalism, I suppose.

Moving on, a few thoughts on Nice White Parents. That was a really short gap between the show’s release and the formal announcement that Serial Productions was being acquired by the New York Times, and though I see the utility of narrative momentum, it’s still quite something to basically go from zero to sixty with Serial Productions, which last dropped a new project in the fall of 2018 — in the form of Serial’s third season, which seems to share a lot structurally with Nice White Parents, at least in terms of the institutional analysis angle is concerned — before basically keeping things mum for the following two years.

Remember: a big part of the story about the Times’ acquisition of Serial Productions is the notion that the new arrangement will lead to the creation of many more new “Serials.” Furthermore, I think there are designs for more Serial Productions projects to follow quite rapidly in the wake of Nice White Parents, which only runs for five episodes.

The prospect of “more-ness” is interesting to me. Serial Productions, the house of the original podcasting phenomenon, has in large part come to be defined over the years for its scarcity. A new season of Serial, along with the launch of a sister project like S-Town, were events, greatly anticipated by podcast listeners and industry denizens alike. They make good news hooks, sublime ways of focusing and ballooning attention.

This is probably concern-trolling — in a manner not unlike sports reporters, so eager for narratives — but I’m curious as to whether Serial Productions will be able to scale up releases while retaining a core capacity to “eventize,” which has been a real point of differentiation for the operation. By way of contrast, I can’t really tell you about any new noteworthy projects from… certain high-volume podcast publishers… right off the top of my head, largely because there are just so many of them being pumped out at any given point in time, to an extent where each individual project immediately becomes devalued by the very existence of the one that’s thrown right after that. Then again, you could make the counter-argument that the trade-off is between “eventization” and “habit-forming,” the former being a gain that’s potentially more lucrative, but… eh, that’s less fun.

One last stray thought about Nice White Parents. It’s one thing to enjoy the bump from a drop in the This American Life feed. It’s a whole other thing altogether to get that bump and front page promotion on the New York Times website and top-billing placement on the Apple Podcast editorial page. This is extremely rarified air, folks.