Issue 181,  published October 16, 2018

The State of Slate

Two seemingly conflicting ideas can be true at the same time. Here’s the first idea, which doubts a line of speculation I’ve been seeing a lot lately: Panoply’s divestment from the content business tells us relatively little about the future of the podcast business at Slate, its sister company under the Graham Holdings family. Here’s the second idea: there’s a lot changing at Slate at the moment, and I can’t tell you for certain what its podcast operations will look like this time next year.

Does this portray a volatile situation, perhaps one that leads to a regression? Not necessarily, I think. Let’s go over the notes.

Over the past week or so, the veteran digital media company has seen some turnover at the leadership level. On October 4, it was announced that Slate’s editor-in-chief, Julia Turner, is departing for the Los Angeles Times, where she will serve as the newly revitalized paper’s deputy managing editor for arts and entertainment. She will, however, remain as co-panelist on the Slate Culture Gabfest, which means that the podcast will mirror the Slate Political Gabfest in being a Slate podcast stalwart that features three main panelists who aren’t on staff. Deputy editor Lowen Liu takes over Turner’s spot for now.

Then, last Wednesday, Slate’s executive producer of podcasts, the NPR alum Steve Lickteig, announced that he, too, would be leaving the company to become the executive producer of audio and podcasts at NBC News and MSNBC. (There, he will be joined by senior producer Barbara Raab.)

All this, of course, comes on top of the executive-level departure that was announced last month in tandem with the news that Panoply was laying off its editorial team: Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group, was leaving to form a new audio company with Malcolm Gladwell, taking the audience-driving Revisionist History with them.

That these leadership exits are clustered is certainly eyebrow-raising, but any overtly glum narrative should be checked against the state of site’s actual podcast portfolio. And on that front, things seem to be quite good.

Consider that Slate has just wrapped up a very successful second season of its narrative documentary podcast, Slow Burn. Not only would I argue that it’s the best nonfiction narrative podcast of the year so far — yes, that includes Serial, In The Dark, and Caliphate, and yes, I’m aware it’s almost certainly recency bias — the sophomore season put up significant numbers. (Some of those numbers, apparently, came from White House aides.) I’m told that, as of Monday afternoon, the second season alone has seen 9.8 million downloads, with an expectation of beating 10 million by tomorrow. It was also an effective driver of subscriptions for Slate Plus, the site’s paid membership program, generating thousands of new members with its offerings of bonus content.

It’s worth noting that Gabriel Roth, previously a senior editor and editorial director of Slate Plus, will be taking up Steve Lickteig’s leadership role over the podcast team. Slow Burn was largely born out of the Slate Plus program, and I’m told that Roth was an instrumental part of the show’s development and strategy. He will hold a new title, editorial director of the Slate Podcast Network, and I, for one, am excited to see what else he brings into the mix.

Consider, also, that Slow Burn‘s success comes on top of a well-oiled and sprawling show portfolio that most notably includes all of its Gabfest programming, The Gist with Mike Pesca, and Studio 360 (which it doesn’t own, but houses and co-produces in partnership with PRX-PRI).

That portfolio continues to grow: later today, Slate will launch its own daily news podcast (The Gist notwithstanding) called What Next with former WNYC personality Mary Harris at the mic, and the site also recently absorbed Karina Longworth’s popular history podcast You Must Remember This, previously housed at Panoply.

Again, two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. In this case, you have dramatic shifts at the leadership level, but you also have a product line that appears to be stable, robust, and reaching for new heights. Take from that whatever conclusions you will, but for me, I’m tempted to put a little more weight on the latter.