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What’s going on at VICE Audio?

Seriously, though.

The Williamsburgian media company — long known for a brand-artistic mix of provocative programming and fascinating documentary-style reporting — turned a few heads last week when it announced that not only had it hired Arielle Duhaime-Ross, most recently of Vox Media’s Reset, to host an upcoming flagship “VICE News Reports” podcast, but that it had also assembled a small army to staff up its audio division. According to Deadline, the company made a dozen audio hires and promotions beyond Duhaime-Ross, which, obviously, is no small number.

This heavy staffing push was curious, because up until this point, VICE had appeared to be relatively tentative with its audio efforts. The company had trended towards conversational programming until mid-2018 — which, to be fair, was basically what most other digital media companies were doing with podcasts for much of that time period — after which they started leaning towards a more piecemeal approach, building documentary projects that are somewhat closer to their video work and staffing up on a project-by-project basis. After mid-2018, VICE didn’t abandon conversational podcasts entirely, continuing to publish shows like Waypoint and Cyber that reflect off its various digital publishing verticals, but it did come to look like they started exhibiting some meaningful interest in narrative audio documentary. There was, of course, “Chapo: Kingpin on Trial,” the 2018 serialized podcast that told the story of the US-Mexican drug war as the titular cartel leader went on trial. That project came out of a partnership with Spotify, to which VICE would sell a few more audio shows for exclusive distribution a year later, including “Uncommitted: Iowa 2020” and “Painkiller: America’s Fentanyl Crisis.”

Today, VICE appears to have greatly expanded its intent with the medium, as exhibited by its newly expanded audio division. Also, if you dig a little deeper into the hires, you’d unearth what feels like a distinctly 2020 perspective on the hiring strategy and recruitment pipelines involved in building out an audio team for a big media company.

The team’s executive producer is Annie Avilés, a former NPR foreign correspondent who has been with VICE since the summer of 2018. Avilés was elevated into the role, most recently serving as the global senior producer at the company. Janet Lee, who occupies the role of senior production manager, was mostly recently at Patreon, where she led creative partnerships with podcasters, though she also had a stint at TED, where she oversaw the launch of new projects, including podcasts.

You’d find two hires from The New York Times’ Daily team: senior producer Adizah Eghan and producer Sayre Quevedo. You’d find one hire from Stitcher, Stephanie Kariuki, who worked her way up that organization from production assistant to senior producer over the course of four years, and now joins VICE as a senior producer. There’s a long-time freelance journalist and producer, Ashley Cleek, who also joins as a senior producer. There are two associate producer hires: Adreanna Rodriguez, who joins from KALW, and Sam Eagen, who works on Mobituaries with Mo Rocca. Producer Julia Nutter joins from theSkimm, but has television experience, having worked on The Rachel Maddow Show for several years. There are three dedicated sound design hires, which is a fascinating detail: Steve Bone, Pran Bandi, and Kyle Murdock.

And then there’s Arielle Duhaime-Ross, whose hiring marks a homecoming of sorts. Prior to joining Vox Media to host Reset, she was actually an environment and climate correspondent on the VICE News Tonight television show. Though, before that, she was a science reporter at The Verge, so I guess this kind of a homecoming after another homecoming. Anyway, her departure from Vox Media means that Reset, which originated as an expansion of what Axios regarded as a “multi-million deal” between Vox Media and Stitcher, is coming to an end. But her recruitment by VICE to host its new flagship podcast — which, by the way, comes out of a partnership with iHeartMedia, not Spotify — should be a source of excitement for those who are interested in seeing a further expansion of news podcast products more generally. (Another thing to note: VICE also hired Duhaime-Ross to be an on-air correspondent for their television program, so this shouldn’t just be read as an audio-for-audio talent move.)

But what exactly should we expect from VICE’s beefed up audio team?

Kate Osborn is the person with the answers. We’ve featured Osborn in this newsletter before, through a Career Spotlight segment that ran back in December, and she’s probably one of the more interesting people you’d meet in this business. A documentarian at heart, her work has spanned a wide number of roles, companies, and media, including stints at The Rachel Maddow Show, WBUR, and HuffPost. She joined VICE Media over a year ago to work on its revamped audio efforts, and today, she holds the title of VP of Audio.

Osborn tells me that the decision to staff up in this manner came out of an intent to expand sustainably. Coming off of the successes of its previous podcast projects, VICE had wanted to do more audio, but they also began to sense that they needed more flexibility to the way they conceptualized and executed on show ideas. “Something that came up a ton was the fact that there were so many great stories we wanted to pursue, but not all of them are meant to be full eight-to-twelve episode seasons,” said Osborn. A flagship platform like the VICE News Reports podcast could be a home to those different show variations, but staffing up on a project-by-project basis, then, wasn’t a feasible way to solve that particular problem, so the decision was made to bring in a sizeable team that could be reconfigured in a bunch of different ways to accommodate different kinds of projects.

There were also benefits to hiring all at once, instead of gradually scaling up. “I wanted to bring in a cohort, because I think that’s the best way to have a really intentional work environment for collaboration,” said Osborn. She also purposefully sought to assemble a team with mixed experience levels, hence the layering of people with significant news experience and people without, long-time freelancers and folks in their first years on the job, and so on. The pandemic made the hiring process a little difficult, as you would expect, but in the end, Osborn felt like she built the team she wanted. “I don’t know how other people feel when they do hiring, but every single person [we’ve hired] is such an incredible force,” she said. “All of these people combined are ten million times better than me, and that’s really exciting. I don’t want to disappoint them.”

One core value driving Osborn, along with the VICE audio division, is a desire to tell truly “borderless” stories, and many of the podcasts being developed at the moment reflect that sensibility. Beyond VICE News Reports, the division has plans to launch three other podcasts that will originate from the team based here in the US. One will be a seasonal show centered on the global climate crisis, which will see the team trying to connect the dots across the experiences of several different countries. Another will adopt an anthological format to tell stories that explore authoritarianism as a philosophical, sociological, and psychological concept, refracting its various facets through different stories that stem from different places. The third show will be an experimental project, as Osborn puts it, with the goal of telling recent or unfolding events primarily through user-generated content.

But it’s also worth noting that there are also projects being developed by teams based in other countries. When we spoke, Osborn briefly talked about a podcast that she’s been building with a team in Japan, which will be meant for the “Japanese-understanding” market. That’s how she phrased that effort, and it’s an effective way to illustrate how she thinks about the possibilities of making audio shows on a global level. She sees audiences not as geographically-defined, but linguistically-defined.

“I encourage us to very much think of things in terms of an ‘English-speaking’ or ‘Japanese-understanding’ audience, because we’re talking about listeners that share language understanding regardless of geographic location,” she said. “In some ways, when we think about the ‘US market’ or the ‘UK market,’ it can be pretty arbitrary, and though, yes, there is increasing geofencing practices and things like that, but for the most part, we should understand them to be global audiences.”

Osborn also talked about her broader intent to build longer-term relationships and infrastructure with producers in other countries — whether its Mexico, the Philippines, or Singapore — such that we’ll be able to see the creation of audio productions that can be truly run through the point of view of those producers. There remains tricky logistical problems to solve in this ambition, of course, including, but not limited to, monetization. But she suspects that part of the solution would involve interfacing with a given country’s specific audio distribution and monetization system, which is a reflection of both the fact that podcasting isn’t the same everywhere (despite its open nature) and that podcasting is just one type of audio.

But that’s the bigger, longer-term picture. For now, here in the States, VICE Media has a new audio team, an upcoming flagship podcast, and fresh intentions. It will be interesting to see just what they will bring to the table, and how many new ideas they can inject into the news and documentary podcast genre.