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Hope everyone is gearing up for the dog days of summer. Today’s issue includes a Q&A I did with Chris Morrow, the newly hired head of audio at Plan B — the production company founded by Brad Pitt that has produced films like Women Talking, Blonde, The Big Short, and many others.
The now over 20-year-old Hollywood production powerhouse has undergone a few recent changes. Last year, Pitt sold 60 percent of Plan B to French media conglomerate Mediawan in a deal that is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions. The acquisition is a part of Mediawan’s strategy to expand to English-speaking markets and acquire more IP, of which audio is expected to play a role. Pitt is still involved in Plan B’s leadership, and Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner have continued as co-presidents of the production company.
In January, Plan B and Audible announced a multi-project development deal, where the former will create a series of Audible Originals. Morrow has worked in the audio industry for many years — he’s been an editor on a number of Gimlet Media shows, as well as the co-creator of its scripted series Mogul. Morrow shared with Hot Pod some insights on Hollywood’s evolving relationship with the audio world and what to expect from Plan B’s audio division in the months to follow.
Also in today’s issue: I cover some news about SiriusXM’s plans to sunset Stitcher and New York Public Radio’s struggles to cut costs.
Plan B thinks there’s still potential for audio in Hollywood
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk a little bit about what prompted Plan B to invest in the audio space?
So, as you know, Plan B has entered into a really strong partnership with Audible. It’s an exclusive multi-product development deal to make Audible Originals. I think this coincided with Plan B’s acquisition by Mediawan. The goal was to expand the scope of what Plan B produces and to take that unique, kind of risky, out-of-the-box storytelling that you’ve seen them do in the film space for a lot of years and start to explore how to make similar things in audio.
As far as “risky, out-of-the-box” storytelling in audio fiction, what does the current space look like? What potential is there for the medium to evolve?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the things that’s really exciting about Plan B is that a lot of people in this space are very focused on specific genres. My marching orders from the beginning have been to go out, find projects I’m passionate about, and just make them. I think as a content creator and a person who’s kind of ushering projects into this space, that’s the best thing you can hear.
What seems to really move the needle at Plan B is passion around projects — as opposed to let’s go out and find rom coms or let’s go out and find a thriller or a true crime podcast. I think they’re open to all those possibilities, but what’s been their hallmark over the years is just really finding ways to support creators who have a particular vision and feel strongly about it. And even if it’s a little out of the box or seems a little different from what’s popular at the moment, they’ve shown that these projects, in the end, can be incredibly successful and impactful.
Can you shed more light on what kind of projects and stories you’re planning on taking on? Will it be restricted to just audio dramas or scripted fiction podcasts? Is there interest in investing in other kinds of podcasts?
I think there’s going to be a lot of movement in the near future. The first project is going to be a fiction project called A Summer Love Thing by a really amazing cinematographer named Bradford Young, who worked on Selma and When They See Us and a lot of other stuff.
I think it’ll have a really unique approach in terms of the format and the storytelling, and I think it’ll fall very much in line with some of the other types of projects — maybe not in terms of subject matter, but at least in terms of approach and format that you’ve seen for Plan B.
We’ve seen podcasts and audiobooks become a popular source of material or IP for Hollywood over the past several years. Since Plan B is a production company, how — or even does it — plan on playing a part in the kind of the audio-to-TV or audio-to-film pipeline?
Well, I think you just nailed it. The goal is to acquire a lot of really strong and innovative IP and find ways to use audio to help launch IP, and then ultimately find new life for it as scripted features or scripted documentaries. Plan B’s goal is to expand in all these areas over the coming years.
I think Plan B sees this as a very fundamental part of what the business and the strategy is going to look like moving forward — which was very exciting for me to hear when we were initially talking about working together.
The writers strike has put much of the production work in this town on hold. How has it impacted your work? Is there more interest in audio now, given the strike?
I mean, obviously, the strike has affected the overall industry tremendously. Plan B as a company is respectful of that and supporting the whole process with that. For me, as head of audio, it hasn’t had quite the same impact. My focus, coming out of the gate, hasn’t been on TV or movies. Really, what I’m looking to do right now is kind of take advantage of the fact that there are a lot of super-talented audio people that are available right now and trying to find ways to build projects and collaborate with them.
I think one of the — and I wouldn’t call this a mistake — but I think sometimes Hollywood doesn’t understand just how specific of a genre that audio is. I wouldn’t say that Hollywood thinks audio is easy to do, but it does think that if you’ve had success in other formats that you can easily plug in audio. As someone who’s been a creator in the space and has worn different hats, I really understand that there’s a unique skill set that [audio professionals] have developed.
It’s been a rough year for the audio industry. We’ve seen several layoffs in the industry, ranging from companies like Spotify to major news publishers and other companies that invested heavily in audio during the pandemic. What are your thoughts about Plan B getting into audio during a time when many companies are moving away from it?
Well, I think it’s a bold move. In talking with Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, who run Plan B, they see there’s a ton of opportunity [in audio] right now. They see this as a moment where you can make a lot of projects that people are shying away from. You can acquire IP that otherwise might not be available.
I don’t want to be lighthearted about it because I know, on a very personal level, this downturn has impacted a lot of talented people who have lost their jobs or seen their work slow down. But I think that Plan B, because of the Mediawan acquisition, is in a really special place where we can keep going at a moment where a lot of people are pulling back significantly.
SiriusXM is shutting down Stitcher in August to pave the way for new flagship app
SiriusXM is bidding adieu to the podcast app Stitcher on August 29th, with the goal of moving current users over to its much-hyped, updated SXM app — which will roll out this fall. The news arrived via an internal memo, which was first reported by Bloomberg and also seen by Hot Pod. SiriusXM acquired the popular podcast app in 2020, along with the podcast network Earwolf and Midroll Media.
While Stitcher’s user base is smaller than that of the SXM app — it’s still nothing to sneeze at. According to app analytics firm data.ai, the Stitcher app has been downloaded approximately 14 million times across both the App Store and Google Play stores, while the SiriusXM app has been downloaded about 55 million times.
“The scale and reach of our widely-distributed podcasts has been and remains a crucial accelerant for our advertising sales business while incorporating podcasts more holistically into our flagship SiriusXM subscription service will help to drive further growth. As a result, we have made the decision to sunset our standalone podcast listening app as we increase our focus on these priorities,” noted the memo’s authors, SiriusXM’s chief product and tech officer Joe Inzerillo, its chief ad revenue officer John Trimble, and SiriusXM Radio’s chief content officer Scott Greenstein.
The biggest change that devoted Stitcher fans will notice in the SXM app is that there’s no way to escape ads — Stitcher’s premium plan included ad-free podcasts. But even those who pay for the SXM app’s $11 per month platinum tier (of which current Stitcher premium members will receive a free six-month trial) will have to listen to ads. SiriusXM isn’t the only platform that’s gotten rid of ad-free podcast ads. Spotify Premium members can listen to ad-free music but still have to listen to dynamically inserted podcast ads and host-read ads. It seems that during a time when podcasts are struggling to monetize, the added revenue from ads is hard to give up.
SiriusXM also owns the ad tech platform AdsWizz and has a unified ad sales group known as SXM Media that sells ads across Pandora, SiriusXM, and Stitcher. The ad network exclusively for podcast ads, known as the SiriusXM Podcast Network, will serve the new flagship SXM app.
SiriusXM’s decision to sunset Stitcher seems like a win-win situation for both parts of the business. As The Hollywood Reporter noted, Stitcher’s existing team will remain, and no shows have been canceled. Stitcher’s programming will also be exposed to a much larger audience. For SiriusXM, keeping all of its podcast programming on its flagship app means one fewer platform to support — and more resources to put behind this upcoming relaunch.
NYPR eliminates senior leadership bonuses and suspends intern program
New York Public Radio has had a rough year, and the public media giant is taking extreme steps to cut costs as it deals with an $8 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends this week. According to an internal NYPR memo shared by Skye Pillsbury, senior leadership at NYPR won’t receive bonuses, as is customary at the end of a fiscal year. The company’s summer intern class will be its last for the foreseeable future — it’s suspending its intern program for the time being.
But a few more tough decisions are coming down the pike. NYPR — along with its board — plans on undergoing a “financial planning process” this summer that will no doubt lead to more cost cutting measures in the fall. NYPR, to date, has already frozen hiring, cut down on overtime, suspended work travel, and a number of other steps to cut down on expenses.
Unfortunately, the savings won’t be enough for NYPR to weather the storm. “But to be clear, on their own, they aren’t enough to stave off wider implications of the deficit,” wrote NYPR CEO LaFontaine Oliver in the memo.