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CNN lays off audio staffers as it shifts podcast strategy

CNN lays off audio staffers as it shifts podcast strategy


Plus, iHeart engages in some questionable download practices

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Illustration of a series of blue microphones on a teal background.
Kristen Radtke / The Verge; Getty Images

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of Hot Pod. You can blame Rosh Hashanah for my tardiness. We have a lot to get into today, but first, some shameless self-promotion! I made an episode of The Vergecast about how the rise of streaming has changed music creation and what it means to be a star. Making podcasts is fun, who knew?

Today, CNN is laying off some of its audio staff, Spotify is trying to stem the flow of white supremacist music, and iHeart is buying illegitimate downloads through mobile games. 

CNN lays off audio staffers

CNN is cutting some of its podcast staff as it refocuses its audio business, according to a laid-off employee. Alexander McCall, who worked as a product manager at CNN Audio, tweeted yesterday that he and other podcasting staffers had been laid off and that CNN plans to produce fewer series next year. “I’m joining the ‘My company invested heavily in podcasting, and then realized it’s expensive and then didn’t want to pay for that anymore.’ cohort,” he said.

CNN would not comment on how many staffers were laid off or which shows will be cut. In a statement, the company said: “Audio is an important growth area for the company. Over the last several years we’ve learned a lot about the topics and productions that most resonate with our audiences. As a result, we’ve refined our strategy to focus our resources more specifically in those areas.”

Most of CNN’s podcasts are tied to its shows and hosts, but the network announced a few new series in February. Breaking News Alerts, which issues minute-long news updates, is still up and running. A special season of Tug of War about the war in Ukraine posted its last episode in June, announcing there would be updates “from time to time” on the feed. (There haven’t been any.) Personal finance podcast Diversifying ended its run in August. Meanwhile, Anderson Cooper has a new podcast on grief, which is at number five on the Apple Podcasts chart and number 12 on the Spotify chart. It seems that standalone shows may be falling by the wayside as those centered on CNN’s anchors will remain.

In some ways, CNN’s situation is unique — its recently merged parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, is hunting for $3 billion worth of cuts. But to McCall’s point, a lot of media companies have expanded into audio in the past few years, perhaps thinking it would be more profitable than it is. As signs of a recession loom, I would not be surprised if we saw more media and entertainment companies abandoning their audio enterprises (though I really hope not).

Podcast companies are using mobile games to generate downloads

Yesterday, Bloomberg released a pretty damning report showing how companies like iHeartMedia and the New York Post are purchasing automatic plays within freemium mobile games that end up in their overall download tally. This matters because those downloads drive those companies’ ad rates and help them in the constant ranking of top publishers.

The story is based on a report from DeepSee, which provides video demonstrations of how these automatic downloads work. When playing a freemium game, a player is given the option of buying their way into continued access to the game, or watching a video or listening to a sound clip. Players may think they are just sitting through an ad, but in some cases, they are downloading podcasts. Podcast companies buy these placements through an intermediary company called Jun Group. 

Bloomberg reports that iHeart, in particular, which touts its position as the number one publisher according to Podtrac, has paid Jun Group $10 million and gotten 6 million downloads through mobile game placements since 2018. iHeart did not respond to request for comment.

ADL finds white supremacist music on Spotify

A new report from the Anti-Defamation League found 40 white supremacist artists on Spotify and criticized the company for allowing the music to surface on algorithmically generated playlists. Spotify has responded to the report’s claims, saying it is rooting out violent content on the platform.

“Our team of in-house experts regularly reviews and takes action against violative content on our platform,” the company said in a statement. “In fact, since January 1, 2022, we have removed more than 12,000 podcast episodes, 19,000 playlists, 160 music tracks, and nearly 20 albums for violating our hate content policy globally.  Much of the content referenced by ADL was found to violate our Platform Rules and was removed from the platform.  We recognize that even with our continued innovation and investments, when it comes to moderation, there is always more work to be done.”

As Spotify grows as a space for creators, it has introduced more specific content policies and launched a Safety Advisory Council earlier this spring to guide its policies moving forward. Two of the acts ADL identified, Wiking 1940 and Pugilato NSHC, have since been removed from the platform.

While the report is specific to Spotify and its playlisting tools, this is a problem for other music services as well. Wiking 1940 and Pugilato NSHC both have pages on Apple Music, though it looks like their tracks have been removed. Songs by Pugilato NSHC are available on YouTube, though they were posted only a month ago, possibly after previously being removed. 

Apple did not respond to request for comment. YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon said, “Our hate speech policy strictly prohibits content promoting violence or hatred against individuals or groups based on attributes like their immigration status, nationality or ethnicity. We’ll remove any content violating our policies upon review.”

Netflix releases trailer for its Spotify-inspired series, The Playlist

And lo, it is very Swedish! Which is perfectly fair, we’re talking about a Swedish company after all. The show, which was announced last year, will be a fictionalized six-part limited series based on the book Spotify Untold by business journalists Jonas Leijonhufvud and Sven Carlsson. The trailer features lots of laptops and aughts references. (Pirate Bay!) 

The people simply want more business dramas. I don’t because they remind me too much of work and I would much rather just rewatch Bob’s Burgers, but I will probably be compelled to watch this one. The series comes out October 13th.

That’s all I got, see you next week.