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The year-end extravaganza

2021 in review

We’re nearly there. 2022. These are times of deep uncertainty, so I’m glad I can offer you something you can depend on: a Hot Pod issue. I do what I can. Today, we have a light news roundup, along with both Aria’s and my year-in-review columns and some bullet points on the things we didn’t mention in our respective writeups. Let’s get to it. 

First, the news, which we’re going to get through quickly, so you can savor that sweet, sweet end-of-year content. 

iHeart shares year-end numbers around the Black Effect Network

Let’s time travel back to September 2021. At that time, iHeartMedia teamed up with Charlamagne Tha God to launch the Black Effect Network, a network run by Black leaders with the goal of reaching Black audiences. Today, the iHeart Digital Audio Group exclusively shared details on the network’s past year or so with Hot Pod, as well as on its Latinx-focused network My Cultura, which launched in May.

Among the details: iHeart says 23 percent of its monthly podcast listeners, across all networks, are Black, up from 19 percent the year prior, and 21 percent are Hispanic, up from 18 percent in 2020. (The demographic data comes from Triton, the team says.) More specifically around the Black Effect Network, the team says ​​39 percent of all Black listeners to the iHeartPodcast Network listen to shows from the offshoot, which now includes 27 titles. Conal Byrne, CEO at iHeart Digital Audio Group, says the network accounts for more than 15 million downloads per month, as defined by the IAB.

“We spent a great deal of investment and energy last year” on these two new networks, Byrne says, and the resulting numbers are “validation” the efforts are worthwhile. “I think what changed for us about the Black Effect was creating this atmosphere of longer tail creators being able to jump into podcasting, so not necessarily, quote unquote, just Questlove or Jada Pinkett Smith, but also people like Jess Hilarious.”

I know all of y’all reading this have lots of feeling about data, so have at it and let me know what you think. I’m always happy to see more representation in podcasting, and if it helps introduce a more diverse audience to the medium? That’s great, too. A lovely note to wrap this one up.

Sorry, but I just have to point out Spotify’s “Pod City” 

The Los Angeles Times covered Spotify’s new, sprawling campus and casually dropped what is seemingly its internal name: “Pod City.” This is not a joke! Pod City comprises only one section of the new campus, which supports 600 employees, has 18 podcast studios, a theater, an indoor stage, and “places for musicians to tinker with vintage instruments.” All right!

Nick profiles How Long Gone

Another shoutout for our friend Nick Quah over at Vulture (and one with a Spotify angle). He profiled How Long Gone, a show y’all know I’m also snacking on. For the numbers-oriented folks, hosts Chris Black and Jason Stewart say the show averages 30,000 downloads per episode. (They’re also primarily sponsored by Spotify’s Anchor.) The Financial Times profiled them, too, last week, under the angle of “podcasts capitalizing on friendships.” I think we can officially pronounce How Long Gone mainstream. Done!

Global, which operates ad exchange DAX, acquires hosting platform Captivate

Global, a media and entertainment group, announced its acquisition of the hosting platform Captivate yesterday. The release says Captivate hosts 14,000 shows and that the platform will directly integrate with Global’s DAX ad exchange. The idea clearly will be to make a bigger play for programmatic podcast ads by allowing these hosted shows to pull from that exchange for monetization. Programmatic keeps on comin’.

And now, on to our year-end content and a reminder that we’ll be back Tuesday with our predictions for 2022. We have to see where we went before we know where we’re going, however.

The year the platforms came for your ears

By Ashley Carman

In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings infamously told investors his streaming platform not only competes with its counterparts for attention but also with sleep. Now almost five years later, and as the pandemic continues on, our visual attention is maxed out. If you’re not streaming a show, maybe you’re playing a video game, or working, or on a Zoom call. The tech and content platforms of the world realize this, so instead, in 2021, they focused on something other than capturing whatever’s in front of our eyeballs: they came for our ears.

Look at who got into audio and podcasting this year. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, a company known for copying any service that takes time away from its own, started supporting podcasts on its main app. The impetus? To keep you inside its world and away from competitors, like Spotify or Apple Podcasts, that might capture your free ear attention. Twitter, an app already reliant on you reading it, launched its live audio product Spaces — a way for you to interact without actually having to look at the screen. (Same with any of the live audio launches this year.) Meanwhile, Amazon Music acquired Wondery at the end of 2020 and, this year, launched some of its first, high-profile original shows, acquired hosting platform Art19, and debuted its first podcast-oriented feature with synced transcripts

In a chat with me for Hot Pod Insider, Kintan Brahmbhatt, Amazon Music’s director of podcasts, directly acknowledged the play for attention Amazon is making and the maxed-out screen real estate. 

“Customers have more time for their ears than they do for their eyes,” he said. “If you look at it from a share of attention perspective for customers, we think more and more customers will have more time to listen to things, and podcasts are here to stay.”

The New York Times also launched its own audio app in beta with an explicit outline of where it might be able to conquer still-unaccounted-for ear time. The below chart, tweeted by Alex Rainert, the Times’ head of audio product and design, demonstrates the blank spaces the company’s app can occupy — as well as where its competitors hope to dominate. 

Even video streaming services now recognize the pull of audio in helping it dominate everyone’s time, both visual and audio. Netflix made its first podcast-oriented hires this year, while HBO Max started distributing exclusive podcasts directly in its app. YouTube started rolling out free background listening for its Music app and hired someone dedicated to podcasts on the platform.

Taken altogether, every app now has an audio component that they’ll use to compete with one another for that attention real estate. It makes sense — the biggest tech companies mostly depend on ad revenue, and they’ve put ads everywhere they can. Audio is the newest frontier for them — a fresh place to shove ads and lay claim to more of our time. 

I don’t see a reason this strategy wouldn’t work. Presumably, the platforms can turn some portion of the millions of people who don’t already subscribe to podcasts into listeners, and globally, the opportunity is massive. I view this year as one in which the groundwork was laid. Companies were acquired, public statements were made about the power and interest in audio, and during the next one, we’ll see the true marketing and content budgets put to work. 

Walks, cooking time, and commutes are open for the taking, and looking ahead to 2022, the platforms are hoping they can conquer it all.

This year, podcasts showed up with a vengeance on TV

By Aria Bracci 

In the new Chucky series on SyFy, one of the show’s main characters investigates a series of brutal murders by hosting a DIY true-crime podcast — a fact I found out while listening to a podcast myself.

If you listen to podcasts, you may already feel like they’re everywhere, but this year, they really were: podcasts popped up in non-podcast spaces like television time and again in 2021. True-crime podcasts drive both Chucky and the new Hulu show Only Murders in the Building, and Carrie Bradshaw co-hosts a podcast in the revival of Sex and the City. In non-fictional spaces, a certain controversial Spotify host got plenty of broadcast news coverage throughout the year, and Hot Pod even made an appearance on Today. Podcasting abounded within both fictional depictions of our world and the institutions that document it, despite there still being tons of non-listeners out there — and maybe even because of that.

TV’s fictional-but-realistic characters reflect the parts of our world that are prominent enough to capture, and 2021’s media showed that podcasting has made it. It’s a realistic, timely move for relationship columnist Carrie Bradshaw to transition to a newer, digital medium, and it mirrors the real-life media institutions that have added podcasting to their repertoire. It’s also nearly identical to the trajectory of similar real-life columns, like Meredith Goldstein’s Boston Globe column Love Letters, which became a podcast a few years ago, and The New York Times’ column-turned-podcast-turned-TV-series Modern Love.

At the same time, podcasting getting top billing in TV shows may also signal that many people still don’t fully understand it, and it needs longer, sustained plots to make sense. In the first episode of And Just Like That…, the logistics of Carrie’s new gig are very much in focus. We hear the podcast. We see her receive feedback on her recording. We get a glimpse of her writing a rough script at home. In Miranda’s case, the idea of a parent going back to school is commonplace enough to not really need explaining; viewers can instead focus on what it serves to tee up (i.e., the cringey exploits of a white woman navigating a human rights class in 2021).

Maybe this time next year, podcasts will be shouted out even more often, with fewer explainers needed; media with a faster turnaround is already giving a glimpse of what this could look like. This year, Saturday Night Live took at least three stabs at podcasting, first dedicating a whole skit to the dynamic between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen on the podcast Renegades, then referencing a viral Joe Rogan quote. When they came for Joe Rogan more recently, it was much more subtle. And so it begins.

And now, other notable things from this year, from both myself and Aria:

  • More accountability for audio job listings. Audio makers increasingly demanded that job postings list exact pay upfront to prevent applicants from accepting lowball offers and reinforcing that those prices are fair (a risk that’s heightened when communicating in private, without the watchful eye of peers). Way more numbers had already started to circulate in audio-industry listservs when, less than a week ago, a bill was passed to mandate salary disclosures for all job listings in NYC, where many media companies are based. Icing on the cake. -AB
  • Spanish-English podcasts made it big, with two major ones, La Brega and Anything for Selena, having a byline shared by Futuro Studios and a well-known public radio station. As Nick noted in Hot Pod at the start of the year, the studio (a new division within Futuro Media Group) chose to partner up in hopes of not needing to raise additional funds but still getting to produce and market ambitious shows with separate feeds for each language — and it seems to have worked. -AB
  • Subscriptions became a possibility for the industry’s future. Apple Podcasts made its biggest move in years with the launch of in-app, paid podcast subscriptions, effectively setting the industry up to move toward a different monetization model. Apple’s buy-in makes me think the broader listenership might start to accept paying for a podcast, too. Apple got us all to wear AirPods. Can it get us to pay for shows?  -AC
  • Podcast unions negotiate. Unions at Parcast, The Ringer, and Gimlet, all notably under Spotify’s management, made moves starting late last year, with the latter two reaching agreements in April and the former still negotiating. As Ashley pointed out in the spring, the contracts that did come to be didn’t grant members the IP rights they were looking for, but they were still noteworthy for giving form to a field where reports of overwork and underpay are pretty damn common. Just this month, podcast workers at iHeartMedia also unionized, shouting out their recent predecessors. -AB
  • The line begins to blur between audiobooks and podcasts. Multiple moves in audiobooks happened this year — Spotify bought Findaway, an audiobook distributor and creator, and Pushkin Industries, which has led the way in supporting both audiobook and podcast production, continues to roll out audiobooks on private RSS feeds. Storytel, Europe’s subscription audiobook app, bought, giving it a foothold in the US. The lines continue to blur, as might the distribution models. Meanwhile, Audible got into podcasts last year. So, so fuzzy.  -AC
  • Joe Rogan officially became fodder for parodies. Everyone got the memo: enough people now know who Joe Rogan is that if you reference him, it’ll land. The comedian Tim Heidecker delivered an entire mock episode of The Joe Rogan Experience for those who like bits to go on forever, but the jokes, jabs, and references truly took all forms: a song about failed romantic prospects who were fans of Rogan’s; the various SNL mentions I made note of in my column; a quick crack in a video by the comedian Matt Buechele; and, of course, the ever-interesting choice of making “Hoe Rogan” one’s Twitter display name. -AB
  • Companies keep trying to take down the radio. We continued to see platforms aim for a slice of the radio pie. Spotify rolled out its Car Thing device more widely, designed to make it easier to stream from the car; Amazon Music launched a Car Mode, also designed for the same purpose; and Spotify also acquired Whooshkaa, software that helps turn live radio shows into on-demand podcasts. Clearly, the tech companies believe they need to not only speed up the potential death of radio through their own devices but also be in a place to make money off the programs that go on-demand. -AC
  • Everyone in Hollywood is into podcasts now. You knew this one was coming. Hot Pod broke the news on Quentin Tarantino’s new podcast project. J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot launched an audio department with Spotify. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment did the same with iHeart. Seth Rogen launched a show with SiriusXM and Earwolf. And those four bits of news were just recently. I don’t foresee this trend slowing down anytime soon, so perhaps we’ll have this same bullet point in 2022. But I’ll save that for my predictions. -AC

That’s it! You made it. Thank you for reading. We’re skipping Hot Pod Insider this week because of the holiday, but if you haven’t subscribed to that now, it might be a good time. I would suggest you give it as a gift, but honestly, I can’t see the whole extended fam being thrilled to find in-depth audio industry scoops in their inbox every week. However, you should treat yourself. Supply chain woe-free. Have a good holiday and talk next week!