Condé Nast had big plans for podcasts in 2020. It launched its new, eponymous podcast network and three initial shows — The Pitchfork Review, Get Wired, and In Vogue — this summer with an initial presentation at the NewFronts conference for media buyers. But by the end of December, most of the people who created and worked on those new shows were no longer employed by the company. In a statement today, 11 former Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE) contract producers and editors allege the company mishandled their employment, outsourced their work to additional contractors, and, generally, bungled the network through mismanagement.
“We believe that Condé Nast could have a bright future in audio,” they write. “However, we don’t foresee success for this or any audio initiative that doesn’t respect its producers, editors, engineers, or the creative work they’re making.”
The producers and editors who built these shows were brought on as contractors, and often worked longer hours than scheduled, even pulling all-nighters, without benefits. They pitched, produced, and edited the shows, along with training magazine staffers on how to create audio content. They say Condé told them they couldn’t be brought on as full-time staff because of a hiring freeze. Only two people who worked on these shows were full-time employees, they say, and both of these employees have since turned in their resignation notices, making it unclear who will produce the network’s shows in the future.
Media companies have been increasingly interested in podcasts as the buzzing industry continues to offer opportunities for monetization. But many companies have found that making a great show requires expertise and a dedicated staff, and they don’t necessarily want to employ all those people themselves. That’s led Condé and other companies to seek help from partners that specialize in audio. BuzzFeed News, for example, partnered with iHeartMedia to create its impeachment podcast in 2019, as well as a news program it launched last year.
When Condé’s contractors were hired, most were actually employed through a contracting company called Ettain instead of Condé itself, the former employees say. These producers and editors also say they were kept on short-term contracts and left in the dark about the future of the shows they helped create. The Pitchfork Review team says they were “teased” with the possibility of a full-time staff position, only to later be told the show would instead be outsourced to an outside production company, Neon Hum, starting the next business day. They were offered the chance to move to the Wired team.
“They wanted [us] to train this production company, that they were outsourcing our show to, to take our jobs,” Caitlin Pierce, a senior producer for the show, tells The Verge. “It’s not that they didn’t think we could do it, or we’re doing a bad job, but they wanted us to move over all our processes to other people to make it.”
The In Vogue and Get Wired teams then began asking Condé for more transparency on the shows’ futures. Instead, the In Vogue team says they received an automated, unpersonalized email from Ettain three days before their contract was set to expire saying that they’d no longer be employed and could start filing for unemployment on December 18th. The Wired team was offered an additional three-and-a-half-week contract, which was rescinded after they pushed back asking for an extension.
The sudden news for all these teams was especially shocking, they tell The Verge, because at Get Wired, for example, the team was already discussing 2021 plans. “Most of [December] was spent talking about plans and planning our production schedules for episodes and ideas that we had for season two,” says Ben Montoya, a former producer for The Pitchfork Review and Get Wired. He says the team planned “ambitious investigations and miniseries,” yet the company didn’t extend their contracts or negotiate with them about doing so.
The fate of these shows is unclear. A source close to the situation says advertisers bought inventory in Get Wired, which was initially slated to premiere its second season in February. But this source also says Neon Hum hasn’t signed any new production deals with CNE going forward. (Neon Hum declined to comment for this story.) Meanwhile, Condé has seemingly shifted its podcasting plan to outsourcing production, possibly because of a change in leadership.
Agnes Chu, a former Disney Plus executive, now leads CNE and took over for former CNE leader Oren Katzeff in July, after his old, problematic tweets surfaced. The source close to Condé says Katzeff’s vision was to create a podcasting team in-house whereas Chu thinks the most effective way to create shows is outsourcing their production. In a statement to The Verge, CNE said it saw “much growth” in its audio business in 2020 and suggested it might look to rehire some people, which would be news to the producers and editors. “As we continue those series and develop new projects for this year’s slate, we hope to not only bring back some of our teams, but also build new creative partnerships with the best in the industry.”
For the producers and editors, they see what happened as a result of big media companies looking to podcasting for new revenue and bringing in outside contractors to pull it off.
“I think it’s a great example of how the people who do the most work are always treated as if they’re disposable,” says Tarkor Zehn, a former In Vogue associate producer. “It’s important for companies to realize that if you want to invest in the product, you have to invest in the people who make the work.”