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Vaccine showdown at the radio station conglomerate

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Plus, welcome to Apple-palooza

Politicon 2018 - Day 2 Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Politicon

Happy Tuesday, y’all. Welcome to the week. As I mentioned in my Thursday Hot Pod Insider, I saw Dune on Friday — loved it. I didn’t know this movie was only part one of two, though! Unfair! Anyway, the podcast news is trickling out this week, and by trickle, I truly mean a drop or two for us to savor, so today’s a fairly short one. Insiders will get more on Thursday and Friday. Reminder that if you want to keep up with all the audio news fit for a newsletter, you can subscribe here. I’m sure your boss will be happy to expense it.

On we go!

Public radio + print newspapers = love ??

Our Insiders got an early peek at this on Friday, but for the rest of you, Aria Bracci, my fellow Hot Pod writer, wrote about how public radio stations are throwing print newspapers a lifeline. Newspapers have something public media wants: time-worn reporters with a knack for sniffing out local stories, particularly in the true crime vein. While public media has something newspapers want: a way to raise money — memberships — and nonprofit status. The synergy between the two is most recently playing out with my hometown public media company Chicago Public Media, owner of WBEZ, and the Chicago Sun-Times (I grew up in a Tribune household, for what it’s worth). The two media entities are currently in talks to merge, and to quote the story, here are the stakes:

“Since 2004, US newspapers have shut down at a rate of 100 per year, a pace that’s only accelerated since the start of the pandemic. To stay afloat, some smaller newsrooms have given up independence, being bought by news conglomerates or becoming joint entities with other local outlets — and public radio and TV stations have increasingly offered themselves up as partners. New York Public Radio acquiring the website Gothamist was one of nine similar deals in recent years, triggering researchers to document the trend by creating the Public Media Mergers Project. Public radio has been a particularly strong force, holding its ground amid digitization and the podcasting craze (partially because it’s participated in it), and it might be strong enough to help print do the same thing.”

Podcasting to the rescue! Check out the full piece on The Verge here. Okay, speaking of public media — let’s get into our next story.

Cumulus radio star Dan Bongino challenges company’s vaccine mandate

Radio station conglomerate Cumulus, like many companies, instated a vaccine mandate in August for employees looking to return to the office. Also like many companies, employees complied, and life went on, or they didn’t, and they were fired or quit. Again, life went on. Except Cumulus now has one key problem: Dan Bongino. Bongino, for the uninitiated, is Cumulus’ Rush Limbaugh replacement and a mega-podcaster on his own. He’s a right-wing pundit type and a former cop. Cumulus, for its part, owns hundreds of radio stations and operates the Westwood One podcast network, home to Ben Shapiro and Mark Levin, among others.

Bongino issued an ultimatum to Cumulus this week, per The Daily Beast and Inside Radio: “You can have me or you can have the [vaccine] mandate. But you can’t have both of us.”

Seems like a bind! But here’s the strange thing: Bongino is vaccinated because he’s a cancer survivor. So this is just a political statement in defense of all the people who chose not to get vaccinated. My guy, why?

I’d love to chat with some Cumulus or Westwood employees about this, so if you’re one of them, please do get in touch.

Alright on to more radio news.

NPR launches an ad campaign for podcasts

On the heels of Spotify launching an ad campaign to attract podcast advertisers, NPR has also jumped into the marketing fray with a new video ad. The ad opens with a question — “What’s happening on NPR Podcasts?” — and then goes on to name a few subjects the network’s podcasts cover: “tacos, flourishing hippos, celeb chihuahuas.” A spokesperson tells me the ads will run on Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, various digital billboards, and elsewhere. Basically, they’re everywhere.

Unlike Spotify’s recent campaign, this one is more designed to target potential listeners and, in particular, people of color. Chief marketing officer Michael Smith says in a blog post, “Over 75 percent of people of color are unaware of the NPR brand.” This is a shocking statistic, but I suppose good on NPR for recognizing this almost complete lack of brand awareness. Will YouTube ads help? Perhaps. I do wonder what kind of targeting is taking place here.

I bring this ad up not just because of the demographics issue but also to point out the increasing investment across media companies in marketing their own podcasts. I stood on the subway platform the other day for 10 minutes or so and saw not only an ad for Spotify podcasts but also New York City’s own podcast that I didn’t even know the city operated. (I have separate questions about this.) Obviously, if you want to increase advertiser investment in a space, you have to make sure enough people are listening to the programming, so if this ad is successful, it not only means more ears but also more money. It’s only a matter of time until we see Facebook advertising its podcast work, too, and Amazon Music, and everyone else, so get ready to see a lot more podcast-marketing ads.

Okay, enough of that and onto a few Apple tidbits.

Apple demystifies the automatic download

Many people in podcasting have lots of feelings around automatic episode downloads, and I won’t litigate them here. Last week, though, Apple published a page meant to clarify how its automatic downloads work. I suspect many of you reading this have a good sense of this system already, but a couple things stuck out to me that are at least worth a reminder. For one: If a listener hasn’t played a show they follow for more than 15 days or hasn’t played the last five episodes, whichever occurs first, Apple pauses those automatic downloads. As soon as the listener starts tuning in again, those downloads resume with the caveat that listeners can always adjust that setting.

The second bit that stood out to me is how Apple Podcasts calls downloads out as a poor indicator of audience interest and designed for the listeners: “They are not designed to measure listener engagement and may provide an incomplete view of this behavior.”

So, where can a podcaster go to obtain truly accurate data? Apple Podcasts itself, duh. Following that quote, Apple promotes its own analytics backend along with supporting backlinks on how to use the platform.

The company is essentially positioning its backend as the place to get the most reliable analytics because if a podcaster checked their hosting provider’s analytics, it would account for all the Apple Podcasts automatic downloads, not just the folks who actually tapped play. This is funny to me because downloads are broadly a mess of Apple’s own making — it could stop supporting them tomorrow if it wanted — but it also simultaneously gives the company a leg up on the competition. Alright!

Now, let’s quickly enter Apple events world.

Apple launches a voice-only Apple Music tier and new AirPods

None of Apple’s announcements from yesterday’s event directly pertain to podcasts, but as readers of this newsletter know by now, we’re interested in all things audio — and I imagine some of these updates speak to industry trends.

First, Apple announced third-generation AirPods with the headline feature of supporting Dolby Atmos. (This feature legit terrified me when I was watching Game of Thrones on a plane recently — why does the sword sound like it’s coming from behind me?? No thank you!) This support means people can listen to Dolby Atmos-mixed music on Apple Music, as well as audio and video programming from other apps that support the feature, like HBO Max and Netflix. Notably, Apple Podcasts doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, despite Dolby now directly marketing itself to podcasters and some companies, like QCODE, using the tech for its shows. Which makes me ask: Dolby Atmos Apple Podcasts collab when??

Apple also announced its new Apple Music Voice Plan, which costs $4.99/month. The low price comes with a tradeoff: you can only interact with the platform through Siri. Yes, that’s right, Siri. I know everyone loves to drag Siri for good reason, namely because it’s a weak smart assistant and barely comprehends things, but at the same time, I find this development potentially important. There might be a whole tier of people interacting with music solely through spoken word, which I anticipate translating over to podcasts eventually. I wrote about this possibility in my piece last week about interactive podcasts. Once you’re used to interacting with a smart assistant in this way, you’ll want to keep interacting. (For what it’s worth, Amazon Music also sells an Echo-only subscription for $3.99.)

A couple more small things for us to note, and I’ll let you go.

Netflix faces employee revolt over Dave Chappelle comedy special

For those of you who haven’t been following along, here are the key beats for this story: Dave Chappelle released a new Netflix comedy special that makes jokes about transgender people. Employees are furious, saying the jokes are transphobic, and data about the show’s performance leaked to Bloomberg while employees are planning a walkout this week and have issued demands. Netflix, for its part, is doubling down on the special and refuses to take it down in any way. It’s a mess, to put it simply. Now, why do I mention this here? Well, we’ve heard similar discourse around one very prominent, tech company-sanctioned podcaster: Joe Rogan. The model for how employees respond to this type of content is being cast now, and employees at Spotify might take note. What happens the next time Rogan makes a controversial comment about transgender people? Spotify might be sweating.

A bill to watch

A group of senators is planning to introduce a bill called the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would make it illegal for tech companies to “self-preference” or promote their own products over a competitor’s. A reader (hello and thank you!) wrote in to point out the possible repercussions this might have on Spotify, Amazon, Facebook, and anyone else who might be incentivized to promote their own podcasts over anyone else’s. I now wonder this, too! It’s early in the process to predict how this bill could play out, and from what I can tell, searching “tech podcast” in Spotify doesn’t automatically bring Reply All up over any other show, so we might be in the clear for now.

Spotify seems to support the legislation, too. Per a boilerplate comment from Horacio Gutierrez, head of global affairs and chief legal officer: “Gatekeeper platforms use their power to distort markets by manufacturing self-serving advantages at the expense of American consumers and competitors ... At Spotify, we welcome the bipartisan introduction of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and thank Senators Klobuchar and Grassley for their steadfast leadership.”

Definitely something to keep an eye on.

That’s it! I’ll catch you Thursday for another edition of Hot Pod Insider. Until then, as always, you can reach me at ashley.carman@theverge.com, by replying to this email, or on Twitter. I’m widely available. See ya!