Negotiations between creators and corporations around intellectual property usually happen behind closed doors, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to argue that the structural inequities of any creative industry typically thrives on that opacity.
But over the past week, the former hosts of BuzzFeed’s Another Round, Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, brought that dynamic out into the open within the podcast context when they took to social media to draw attention to the fact that they still did not own any of their podcast’s back catalogue. This matter quickly gained momentum when BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti responded to Clayton and Nigatu’s tweets to lay out the company’s side of the story, while celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs, and Samin Nosrat lent their support to the resulting #FreeAnotherRound hashtag.
To back up a bit and recall how we got here: an incredibly consequential show during its run, Another Round officially went on hiatus in December 2017. Nigatu had already left full time employment at BuzzFeed to pursue other opportunities, but still shared hosting duties with Clayton, who at that point remained a BuzzFeed staffer. The podcast would later publish an update on its feed in December 2017, explaining that the show would not be continuing with BuzzFeed. The salient part of the explanation went: “Due to strategic changes at BuzzFeed, Another Round is parting ways with the company in 2018. We were surprised and initially disappointed to hear of these changes, but fortunately we were offered ownership of the show. Naturally we accepted.”
An internal memo, from then-BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith, informed staff of this change, noting that the Buzzfeed News audio team — a.k.a. the Podsquad — would be focusing more on hard news and short-form reporting in future, as well as continuing to produce its two remaining active podcasts at the time: Thirst Aid Kit and See Something Say Something. BuzzFeed News would eventually also part ways with both shows in late 2018, when the Podsquad was laid off and the company moved to a per-project contract arrangement for any future audio properties. Thirst Aid Kit and See Something Say Something have both resumed production under different models since then — the former with Slate, and the latter as an independent crowdfunded show. Both have access to their back catalogue.
Fast forward to June 2020, and this is where the point of contention lies: Nigatu and Clayton say they were never offered a similar arrangement, whereas Peretti claims that the option to license Another Round’s archive was always on the table. In his Twitter thread, Peretti also indicated that he considered this to be a generous offer, saying in a tweet: “Media companies don’t pay for IP and transfer it to employees, but we offered to do it because Ben [Smith] and I both loved the show and wanted to see it continue. You can continue the show, we are not stopping you.”
Full and entire ownership of those archives, as opposed to simply licensing them, seems to be a different matter. There’s more detail on Peretti’s position in this screenshot from the BuzzFeed Slack, in which he says that “we have no plans” to hand over full ownership of media created at BuzzFeed, but that he is open to finding a “mutually beneficial solution” for Another Round’s archive.
More insight into this position can perhaps be found in BuzzFeed’s dealings with other creators outside podcasting who have previously left the company. In that message Peretti also mentions the example of The Try Guys, the popular YouTube act who started out at BuzzFeed before leaving to go independent in Spring 2018. It was around this time that a swathe of other popular video creators, like Safiya Nygaard and Chris Reinacher, left the company and started their own channels, often kick-starting their followings with millions of views for a “Why I Left Buzzfeed” video that to a greater or lesser extent spilled the dirt on why they had wanted out of Peretti’s company.
It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that if BuzzFeed starts handing out ownership of monetizable content created by its employees in some circumstances, it’ll then be potentially exposed to other many claims of this kind. Which isn’t to say that this is a laudable attitude — it’s just the logic that explains how any for-profit media company would behave in this scenario.
Since that initial Twitter exchange, Nigatu has confirmed that her representatives are in touch with BuzzFeed, and a source at BuzzFeed tells me that: “We’re hoping to meet with their agent in the next few weeks, and we’re open to allowing the hosts to license their back catalogue if they wish — on top of transferring the IP. Hopefully this can get done asap.”
But the reason that this dispute has attracted so much attention, beyond the issue of one podcast’s back catalogue, is because it feels emblematic of so many other structural issues within media and podcasting. It is symptomatic of something much bigger that two black women should, years later, have to take to Twitter to resolve what could have been a relatively amiable IP transfer.
Much of this almost certainly comes down to persistent problems of institutional support and trust. Long before Another Round ceased production at BuzzFeed, those involved in its creation that I’ve spoken to have said that there was little or no support shown for the podcast internally. The company supposedly struggled to sell sponsorships for the show and there was apparently little interest in educating the market for a podcast like Another Round, as one former member of the BuzzFeed Creative team laid out in a Twitter thread.
Clayton has mentioned on Twitter feeling gaslit by this whole situation — having created a show that was critically acclaimed and externally popular enough to attract the likes of Hillary Clinton and Lizzo as guests, but which was then ended by her own company because it wasn’t “successful” enough. The abrupt way in which BuzzFeed’s in-house audio team was terminated only adds to this impression of a company that didn’t know how to support successful creators who weren’t white men, not least because the vast majority of those producers were women, and all three regular BuzzFeed News shows were hosted by black people or people of color.
Peretti has owned up to this problem, saying: “First off you are 100% right about our business team being bad at selling podcasts to clients, and I’d go further and say they were bad at selling content focused on Black audiences. This is inexcusable and cost us dearly. We should have developed those skills.” Belatedly, the company is now working on this, he went on to say.
Another Round is but one show, and hopefully after the publicity this brouhaha has attracted its hosts can reach a satisfactory settlement with their former employers. But the structural problems in this industry that put them in this position in the first place are still very much in play, and there will be plenty of others still out there who have to fight their corner to redress these power imbalances.