Issue 209,  published May 14, 2019

What’s next for the indie podcast studio?

Indie podcast studios are a dime a dozen these days, with the model further coming to the forefront as more and more enterprising producers see less upside in working for a preexisting publisher and more upside in opening up a shop they’ll own.

There are two main things driving the perceived upside. The first is an industry environment that’s exhibiting a decent appetite for acquisitions. As more established media companies look to move into podcasting, buying their way into competency is an ever-present option. The second thing is trickier to articulate, but it’s essentially rooted in the podcast ecosystem becoming significantly more complex in composition. There was a time where, as a podcast creator, your primary overarching preoccupation is having to develop, and then manage, an audience for your show. With the increasing participation of established media companies — and select non-Apple ~platishers~ — looking to grow and control their own respective podcast audience slices, podcast creators have the opportunity to shift that preoccupation: nowadays, they have the option to sell shows to vendors, which is in many ways a hell of a lot easier than needing to make stuff while building an audience.

Not that there aren’t downsides to striking out on your own, of course. You’d need to cultivate clients, hire workers, do the hard work of keeping the lights on. Speaking as an independent small business owner myself, I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in three years, and I live in perpetual fear of annihilation with every passing second of the day. And that’s not even addressing the matter of simply needing to be good at your job.

Still, it’s a ripe time to be an independent studio, and one of the more interesting things to watch is how the parameters of an indie studio has changed since Pineapple Street Media first hung up their shingle three summers ago.

We can discern some of those differences from briefly examining Magnificent Noise, the new-ish studio founded by Eric Nuzum and Jesse Baker that’s quietly coming out of stealth mode this week. Baker and Nuzum, of course, are both public radio vets who most recently held high-level positions at Audible Originals back when the division was still pursuing a strategy built around podcast-style programming. The duo left the Amazon-owned audiobook platform last summer, shortly after the company restructured the division in the wake of a leadership shuffle to pivot towards what I like to call the “more audiobook-like products but without the pesky book part” strategy. (The restructure, by the way, resulted in the termination of Nuzum and Baker’s old team, leaving several producers out of a job.)

Magnificent Noise is Baker and Nuzum’s next act, and as mentioned, it takes the form of an indie podcast studio. Well, more specifically, they’re calling it “a boutique production house and consulting company,” and the announcement note they recently circulated noted a focus on making “distinctive and genre-defining work that entertains, enlightens, and fosters meaning.” The studio already has a few clients lined up, some that can be named and some not so much, but the ones in the former category include TED, the product of which, called Sincerely X, is now out on the Luminary platform, an active vendor for many such indie studios; Esther Perel, who already worked with Nuzum and Baker back at Audible; and the New York Times. Magnificent Noise currently has three full-time staffers: Eva Wolchover, Destry Maria Sibley, and Noor Wazwaz.

When I checked in with the duo last Friday, a recurring theme that emerged was one of making specific, focused, inward-facing choices. They told me about how, for now, they’re not doing any branded content work — not that they think anything ill of it, they maintain, it’s just not something they want to do — which didn’t use to be an option for podcast studios, back when they weren’t as many potential buyers. They also talked about an intention to remain small and focused, with a view to preserving an ability to choose projects with a select pool of partners of a certain kind. One imagines this wouldn’t be a valid proposition for a shop that’s raised any amount of investment capital, suggesting that, to be in this position, you either need to have the capital to begin with, or the right kind of starting contracts to get you going.

It’s fascinating how the indie studio model builds on itself, much like everything else, and just how much difference a few years can make. I can’t imagine a newly-founded indie studio being able to assert that much freedom of choice, say, in the summer of 2016. Then again, I can’t say I’ve imagined much of the way podcasting has shook out, either.

During our conversation, Nuzum and Baker told me about their flexibilities in certain other areas. How, for instance, they’re somewhat laid back in regards to their relationship with the intellectual property of the things they make — “it’s not really a hill we want to die on,” they noted — and around revenue participation percentages. Extending this line of explanation, they evoked the film and television-style model of packaging show ideas and commitments together to bring out to potential buyers. (At the moment, they are not working with a talent agency.)

The duo also laid out their theory on how Magnificent Noise is different from the pack, which itself hinges on their theory of the future. According to them, that future looks like this: “What we hope to see is the US developing something similar to what you’d see in London, where there are maybe over a hundred small production houses, many of them two or three person shops, that have mostly supplied content to the BBC but have, in recent years, realized that there is more than one person in town to dance with. In this kind of arrangement, you’d have these different studios that each specialized in a different type of production.”

It’s an appealing vision, one that’ll undoubtedly feed more into the perceived upside of the indie studio. But I dunno. So much of that will depend, frankly, on the nature of the buy side, and there’s so much about it that’s still so far up in the air.