Issue 258,  published May 12, 2020

The Year Ahead for Pushkin Industries

“There’s a fair amount of worry,” said Jacob Weisberg, the former Slate Group exec who co-founded Pushkin Industries with Malcolm Gladwell in late 2018. “Not about whether we’re going to make it or anything like that — it’s just a nervous time. At the end of this, we’ll probably see an acceleration of the shift to podcasting, but as of yet, I don’t think anybody can point to a huge bump in listenership.”

As with everyone else, the pandemic has brought some disruption to Pushkin’s operations. The company had a strong 2019, and they started this year with a push to transition its staff into new, bigger office space. But now, as with everyone else, they’re managing what may end up being an extended shift to remote production, a process that involves a good deal of improvisation, trial and error, and trust from the entire team.

That said, Weisberg contends that the broader podcast ecosystem remains in a solid position. “The overall ad market is still so small, and most of the advertisers who are there are really committed to podcasting,” he said. “They’re not going to go anywhere unless their companies go belly up, or they don’t have money to spend any more.” His belief is further supplemented by a sense that this could be a transformational media moment, the kind that leads to new habits that will stick through to the other side of the pandemic. When people start heading back to their offices again, the thinking goes, maybe they’ll take podcasting into their commute instead of sliding back into linear radio or something else.

We’ll only really know about all that much later, though. For now, Pushkin’s immediate focus is managing a reality where the company may not be getting a lot of the upside it’s been expecting this year — new advertisers, new pools of available money — and where there’s a strong possibility for rougher economic big pictures up ahead.

Despite the general air of nerves, the company is pushing ahead with what will be a very busy second half to the year. They just rolled out new seasons of Against the Rules with Michael Lewis and The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos. Later this week will see the debut of The Last Archive, a new project from the historian Jill Lepore that’s set to be a genre-bending production that mixes elements of classic radio drama with a sweeping investigation into the death of truth. Next month, Pushkin will launch a daily news podcast it’s been developing with Axios, first announced back in March, along with the fifth season of Gladwell’s Revisionist History, which remains something of its flagship production.

More project launches lie deeper into the calendar. Most of these are still under wraps, but they’re currently able to drop details about two. The first is Deep Cover, a series by Jake Halpern about an undercover FBI agent whose infiltration of a biker gang in Detroit leads all the way to the US invasion of Panama. (Pushkin is considering this podcast their first foray into true crime, which, I suppose, is literally true.) The other is a project that will be hosted by the British novelist Hari Kunzru.

It’s a bumper crop of projects, and the team anticipates having a portfolio of around 15 shows by the end of the year. From a distance, it can seem like a sprawling slate, but when I asked Weisberg if there were any guiding principles behind a Pushkin show, the answer came quickly. “I think it’s about the pleasure of intelligence,” he replied.

In something of a coronation of this expansionary phase, the company is also going through a visual and audio rebrand, an effort that will involve fresh updates to their current look from creative brand director John Custer — the gentleman behind the Comic Sans-centric show art for Against the Rules, who I interviewed last year — as well as a new audio logo by the composer Nicholas Britell.

These expansions also apply to the business end. In keeping with the times, Pushkin has set up shop in Los Angeles, hiring David Markowitz, most recently the director of audio at Headspace, to serve as the managing producer for that office. They have also brought on Brendan Francis Newnam, the producer of the Paris Review podcast and the former co-host of Dinner Party Download, to serve as “VP of Special Projects,” a role that, in part, involves leading the creative for productions that will be distributed through channels beyond the traditional podcast format.

That last sentence is a little convoluted and cryptic, but it basically refers to Pushkin’s continuing interest in opportunities outside of the podcast industry’s core advertising-driven model. As you can imagine, it’s an interest that’s only intensified under present conditions. Newnam’s hire, then, is a push to further suss out the many shapes this might take.

In the past, this has meant deals with a platform like Luminary (see: Food Actually with Tamar Adler), but more intriguingly, it has also meant pretty ambitious forays into audiobook production. The prime example of the latter is the audiobook version of Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, which was essentially produced in the style of a podcast. That audiobook, I’m told, was “hugely successful,” and that success underscores an opportunity at play here for the Pushkin team.

“Part of our premise is that there’s not that much overlap between podcast listeners and audiobook listeners,” Weisberg explained. “In a way, we want to mess it all up in the sense that we want to make podcasts that are more like audiobooks and audiobooks that are more like podcasts, and get the one who’s not listening to the other to cross over.” In his mind, the fundamental difference between the two media formats is the business model, more so than anything inherent to the content form. The audiobook model, then, which has largely stayed the same in creative presentation for quite some time, is ripe for further innovation.

It’s worth noting that a sizable portion of Pushkin’s leadership team has considerable experience with the book publishing world. Indeed, watching the company over the past year, I’ve come to see the structure of the book publisher as something of a key to understanding how Pushkin thinks about its position in the podcast business. It falls naturally from the fact that most of its talent partners, whether it’s Lewis or Lepore or Santos, are the kinds of people who are already accustomed to publishing books and have built considerable followings in that medium. The analog also helps inform, directly and indirectly, a wide range of different organizational components, from the way the company approaches talent contracts to the way the leadership thinks about brand positioning. “Pushkin, as a superstructure, is supposed to be semi-transparent,” said Weisberg. “With book publishing, readers generally don’t care about whether it’s a Simon & Schuster book, they care about who wrote the book.”

Nowadays, Pushkin has about twenty-six full time staffers to support its expanding slate of shows, and as the company continues to grow in size, Weisberg is starting to think a lot about the pace of that progression — as well as the struggles that come with it. “There’s a real tension when we reach a point where we have such a big portfolio that I can’t be as involved in each project,” he said. “That’s an issue. Right now, I can still be deeply involved in every show we make, but over time, that will probably be less true.”

I run this thing.