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This is gearing up to be a more eventful August than usual. For today’s issue of Hot Pod, I have news about how Disney’s spring layoffs hit the in-house podcast team at Marvel. I also have a Q&A I conducted with Warner Music Group’s senior vice-president of digital strategy and development, Allan Coye. Coye was the main force in launching Interval Presents, which is WMG’s in-house podcast unit. Finally, I have an update on SiriusXM’s second quarter earnings call from this morning.
Marvel’s podcast unit is the latest casualty of Disney cuts
Marvel wasn’t spared in Disney’s axing of 7,000 employees this spring, which included former Marvel Entertainment chair Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter. Now, Hot Pod has learned that Marvel’s small in-house podcast unit of six employees was cut in half during the latest round of Disney layoffs, too. The team produces both companion podcasts and pop culture podcasts like Women of Marvel, The History of Marvel, This Week in Marvel, and others. Of the three employees who were given notice, one has already left, and two will depart by the end of the month. Hot Pod reached out to Marvel for clarification about the layoffs but has yet to hear back.
One employee, who asked not to be named so they could freely discuss the cuts, told Hot Pod that Marvel gave no specific reason for the layoffs but mentioned that Disney was involved in the decision to axe the roles. The podcast team had already come up with a plan to cut costs, including sunsetting Marvel’s Pull List podcast — but this effort wasn’t enough to sway Marvel.
Marvel’s SiriusXM deal wrapped up earlier this year
“Watching the audio industry implode this past year has been gut wrenching. So many of my former public radio colleagues, and those working in the private sector lost their jobs. I wasn’t entirely surprised Disney decided to follow suit,” the anonymous employee told Hot Pod.
Marvel and SiriusXM signed a multi-year agreement in 2019 to launch scripted and unscripted podcasts back when the satellite radio giant was just dipping its toe into podcasting. Under the agreement, SiriusXM subscribers got either early or exclusive access to Marvel’s podcasts. The two companies most recently launched a scripted fiction podcast, Marvel’s Wastelanders, in December of 2022. We understand that the conclusion of the latest season of Wastelanders this year marked the end of SiriusXM’s pact with Marvel.
Disney’s efforts to cut costs have hit the many audio properties under its belt pretty hard. Three ABC Audio execs departed the company last month following multiple cuts at both ESPN Radio and ABC Audio. National Geographic (of which Disney owns a majority stake) laid off a number of audio employees in April, including the team behind the Overheard podcast. It then deepened the cuts only a couple of months later, terminating the rest of its audio team as well as all of its staff writers.
SiriusXM is betting big on its next-gen app
Audio giant SiriusXM seems to be holding steady despite this year’s treacherous ad market, according to the company’s second quarter earnings call this morning. The company’s total subscriber base of 34 million (including both self-pay subscribers and those who join the free trial after purchasing SiriusXM-enabled vehicles) is still roughly the same number it reported in 2022. But the satellite radio giant hopes more streaming subscribers will join when it debuts a new “next-gen” app in the fall.
SiriusXM reported second quarter earnings of $310 million and revenue of $2.25 billion, slightly exceeding Wall Street expectations. It lost a total of 132,000 self-pay subscribers in the second quarter but gained 155,000 new paid promotional subscribers. It’s typical for the company to gain new subscribers each quarter from its three-month promotion for vehicles — a number will then cancel after the trial period ends.
CEO Jennifer Witz seemed optimistic about an upcoming streaming app that SiriusXM plans to launch in the fall, which the company is betting will add new streaming customers and help retention rates for in-car listeners. Users can opt to pay $10.99 for a streaming-only subscription to SiriusXM, which is solely on the SXM app and smart speakers and media players (streaming-only listeners can technically connect the app to their car’s radio).
“…We are investing in this platform to support both the streaming business, which will enable us, we believe, to improve our streaming subscribers, who listen in and outside of the car, but also to improve retention and conversion among our in-car subscribers because when they stream, we see higher conversion and retention rates,” Witz said in response to an investor’s question.
“Podcasting has remained relatively stable in terms of what’s working.”
Podcasting remains a bright spot in SiriusXM’s advertising portfolio. The company reported over 2,600 podcast campaigns from more than 100 Fortune 500 brands. SiriusXM is also currently testing AI advertising tools for podcasts, seemingly aimed at making it easier for small businesses to create their own audio ads.
“[These AI tools] will lower the barrier of entry to audio and democratize access for small businesses while offering faster, smarter solutions to empower larger brands to create and execute audio campaigns more seamlessly and efficiently,” she said.
Sirius XM Radio’s president and chief content officer, Scott Greenstein, also shed some light on where the company stands on podcasting as others scale back their audio operations: “The overall view is podcasting has remained relatively stable in terms of what’s working. So for instance, the top 10 in podcasting and top 20 largely has the same podcasts it had at least a year ago. And we have two of the top 10, five of the top 20, and 14 of the top 50.” The company currently has multiple podcast networks under its umbrella, including Audiochuck, NBC, Team Coco, and Freakonomics.
“We feel really good on our ability to market and get those out there but, more importantly, to monetize those,” added Greenstein.
Warner Music Group’s Allan Coye on the music industry’s embrace of podcasts
The music industry is paying close attention to another big audio medium. Warner Music Group last year launched its in-house podcast unit, Interval Presents, with the goal of building upon its vast music library and serving as a platform for its roster of creators and artists. WMG is just the latest “Big Three” record label to venture into podcasts — Sony Music Entertainment already has its own global podcast division, and Universal Music Group worked on local podcasts before entering into an agreement with Wondery to produce original shows in 2019.
Interval Presents has launched five podcasts so far — including Yeah, I F*cked That Up, hosted by Billy Mann, Rap Radar with Elliott Wilson and Brian “B.Dot” Miller, Drink Champs hosted by N.O.R.E. and DJ EFN, Holding Court by Eboni K. Williams, and The Last Resort, a podcast about Calexit narrated by the musician Xiuhtezcatl.
Coming up the pipeline at Interval Presents is a fiction podcast featuring Jason Derulo and a podcast about the African diaspora hosted by actress Lupita Nyong’o. I spoke to Interval Presents’ general manager, Allan Coye, to hear more about what it’s like to run a podcast network at a record label.
I know Warner Music Group launched Interval Presents, its in-house podcast network, back in 2022. Can you talk about the thinking behind launching the effort at the time?
So, I wear a lot of hats at Warner Music Group. One of them is on the central business development, where we do music licenses with the digital music platforms and other streaming services we all know and love. It’s from that vantage point that, you know, we see a lot. Part of my remit is to look for new opportunities in places where we think [WMG] can add value to artists and to fans.
Podcasting stood out [in 2022] as one of those places where we didn’t have a lot of capabilities. We had done some experimenting across some of the labels and affiliates in the space, but it really just made sense to do something that is driven by a central strategy. We wanted to leverage our capabilities as IP owners but also as an entity that is close to artists and understands how to find listeners. So, with that spirit, I broke the initial business case and got the green light and hired everyone who’s on the team.
So we’re really excited and proud to see what I think has become a pretty cool, consumer-facing brand within the podcast space. We’ve rolled out five shows so far and have another three on the way. It’s been really exciting to have the ability to sort of start and build those capabilities in-house.
Warner Music Group is not a struck company for the purposes of the Hollywood strike. But I was wondering if you’ve sensed any impact as far as creators expressing interest in exploring audio? Have any opportunities from the strike presented itself?
That’s a great question. I kind of think about it in a couple of different ways. When opportunities became sparse for film and TV during covid, I think we already saw some folks look for podcasting opportunities that might not have been there before. I remember looking at pitches for new shows, and it was clear to me that this pitch was once for TV, but now it’s for a podcast because there were no productions at the time.
“We’re not going to ask any of our creatives ... to do anything that makes them uncomfortable.”
I’ve had a couple of conversations with creators who were looking for opportunities to keep them busy and things like that. I think that probably could be a part of the future. But I think it also depends on how long the strike goes as to what the opportunity really looks like. In terms of how many creatives will need to keep busy. In terms of impact, I haven’t really seen anything. Maybe there’s an influx of talent that maybe wants to get into podcasting, which I think is always a fine thing.
We’ve had conversations with experts and lawyers involved who follow [the Hollywood strike] closely to make sure we’re prepared in case anything happens that would affect our projects or the marketing or promotion. So far, we haven’t seen anything impacted. But obviously, we’re not going to ask any of our creatives or creative partnerships, partners, or production companies to do anything that makes them uncomfortable.
[The strike] is something that we’re closely monitoring and hope to get a resolution to soon. But in the meantime, if we get opportunities to work with creators we wouldn’t be working with otherwise — I’m happy to assess those opportunities.
At the same time… we’re not necessarily set up for the biggest scale. We’re now set up to do eight or maybe 12 shows in a given year, and that’s been our focus.
We’ve seen an increasing number of musician-hosted podcasts over the years, with everyone from Alice Cooper to Questlove. I know Interval has that podcast hosted by Billy Mann — Yeah, I F–ked That Up. There’s also podcasts that go into making music. What kind of opportunities are there in podcasting for the music industry?
Our focus is music and music-adjacent topics. We’ll also do entertainment and pop culture, lifestyle, social justice. It’s not just about music in these sort of very contained ways. But I think in the same way — music helps push culture forward. So we think about that when we’re thinking about the impact we can have and how to find fans and how to find content that resonates with fans.
It’s great if you get the opportunity to tell a story of an artist or a story of a cool release or album. But also, can we find interesting and new ways to infuse music as a part of the sound design of the podcast?
We have this one project with Jason Derulo. It’s a fiction romance thriller called Underwater, and it’s going to come out later this year. We wanted to make the podcast a full-force multiplier for his music. Now, every project doesn’t have that level of alignment. But I think there’s ways to think about artists and creativity and moving culture forward that are kind of organic — but not super on the nose as in just telling an artist’s story.
So, with this fiction podcast with Jason Derulo — this is not something he wrote and worked on, but it’s integrating his music, correct?
He was involved in the making of the story, but we also had a team of writers that came up with the actual scripted dialogue. But he was used as the basis for the project and gave us the initial framework.
As you mentioned, a lot of these shows sound like something that isn’t tied to music as much as the culture surrounding fans and the adjacent topics they’re interested in. Can you talk about the thinking behind that?
It’s sort of like four expanding, concentric circles, if that makes sense. Interval Presents was born out of a record label, and we have the DNA of a record label and are always looking for opportunities for artists and fans to know each other better. But when you think about what can be outside of that and music adjacent, it’s shows like Rap Radar and Drink Champs. They’re not necessarily about music but are largely musicians telling their own stories in a relatable way.
We have a show coming out with Lupita Nyong’o later this year called Mind Your Own. It’s kind of like — for lack of a better comparison — it’s her version of This American Life but driven by stories from the African diaspora. It’s based on stories from her growing up in Kenya and Mexico and her unique point of view. We’re looking to infuse some of our artist catalog from the sub-Saharan Africa roster as well to kind of make the sound design really pop and feel authentic.