Weekly Media Biz Report Card: May 25th Edition

Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

The 18th-22nd was one of the newsiest weeks of the podcast biz in 2020. Many millions were committed to celebrity deals, contracts were disputed, and tech giants zeroed in on breaking into the biz further with originals. 

It’s not like individually any of these things are uncharted territory for the podcast space, but it is rather uncommon to have fresh news around those three areas in the same week. The amount of significant news that broke just last week seemed to tell the story of a field, or market, growing up. 

Here’s how it all went down: 

Spotify captures Joe Rogan, one of the podcast business’ brightest stars. The $100M+ Joe Rogan-Spotify exclusive licensing deal was one of those rare media/tech deals that rang loudly even in non-media/tech-biz circles. That’s because of the place of “The Joe Rogan Experience” within pop-culture: Rogan’s podcast is responsible for unmistakably zeitgeisty moments like when Elon Musk “partook” on-camera, and is commonly thought to be one of the most popular podcasts in the U.S. (“TJRE” nets 190M downloads per month). But what makes this announcement so huge to us folks more concerned with the media realm is that it signals a further shifting of momentum in the podcast platform landscape from Apple to Spotify. Zooming out a bit, the Rogan-Spotify deal matters because it will help podcasting’s reach as a whole. When the program does go exclusive to Spotify, the streamer is likely to promote it in some way within its app, which will represent a gateway to podcasting for some within Spotify’s massive user base. 

Classic media company tug of war ensues with “Call Her Daddy” podcast. The silence on brewing issues surrounding Barstool Sports’ “Call Her Daddy” podcast was finally broken last week, with Barstool chief Dave Portnoy’s tell-all podcast exposing the details of a contract dispute between his company and “CHD” stars Sofia Franklyn and Alexandra Cooper. The feud made waves because of “CHD’s” reach; it has raked in millions of downloads and was the 15th most popular U.S. podcast of April, according to Podtrac. But why this dispute matters is because it exemplifies the classic arc of talent-getting-too-big-for-the-media-co that-grew-them, only this time it stems from podcast-born talent. We’ve seen personalities leave the media companies that grew them once they’re big enough plenty of times, though it’s much more common to see that with video-born talent, rather than podcast-born talent (see: BuzzFeed creators). The fact that there was such fascination around the whole Barstool-”CHD” feud was no doubt attributable to the passionate following the podcast has cultivated, but it also speaks to podcasting’s growing prominence as a whole (put another way, if this public feud occurred 5 years ago, would it have generated the same amount of buzz?). And when you take into consideration that big tech players will increasingly wave big checks at A-tier podcast talent as podcast listening grows across the U.S., it seems more likely that there are similar feuds on the horizon. 

Larry King continues the celebrity infiltration of the podcast business. It’s still in vogue for traditional media celebs to launch their own podcasts, Larry King’s announcement last week of his soon-to-come entrance into the crowded podcast market suggested. King, who is promised $5 million under a multiyear contract with 4Forty4 Media, will of course see his podcast benefit from the clout he’s gained from his career in TV, by way of loyal fans supporting “The Millionth Question,” and high-profile guests appearing on the show that might not typically appear on other podcasts. But a rather unexpected consequence that could arise from the success of a Larry King podcast is that it, if “The Millionth Question” does blow up and receive tons of praise, will likely be pointed to by some in the podcast community as another example of big, already-famous people coming into the podcast medium and taking the spotlight away from smaller indie creators who have been trying to build up their audiences for years.

Amazon wants podcast listeners too, via Audible. The podcast platform wars could heat up with a relatively unmentioned player in the conversation to-date: Amazon’s audiobook service Audible has been holding talks to acquire podcasts from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, according to Bloomberg. This is somewhat notable because this amount Amazon is reportedly offering for podcasts is more than most competitors are coughing up besides Spotify, per Bloomberg, but be careful about banking on 2020 being a podcasting-breakout year for Amazon like 2019 was so very clearly for Spotify. For one, even though no plans are set, it appears that consumers might have to pay to access these in-talks Audible podcasts. And the not-so-hot trajectory of Luminary to-date indicates how tough it is to build up a paid podcast biz in the current media environment. Secondly, Amazon’s podcast quest seems not as focused as it should be at the moment. Amazon also wants to ramp up the podcast catalog of Amazon Music, which is one of the bigger music streaming apps, and having Amazon-owned podcast IP split across Amazon Music and Audible could be confusing and inconvenient for listeners that lean into Amazon’s podcast push. Because of this, I’d file this Amazon-podcast news under “Let’s Wait and See,” rather than “Something Huge Likely on the Horizon.”

Apple’s original podcast effort continues to become more of a thing. Bloomberg reported last Thursday that Apple wants original podcasts that are either: a) linked to its existing Apple TV+ originals or b) capable of being turned into Apple TV+ programming down the line. But Apple’s history and brand M.O. tell us that we shouldn’t expect too much too quickly from this news. There’s long been reports out there that Apple has been interested in original podcasts, though it’s not like the company has aggressively chased major podcast talent deals since then, at least publicly. Additionally, Apple’s quality-over-quantity approach to content (as exhibited by its relatively small Apple TV+ catalog that, until recently, balked at the notion of licensing content) signals it won’t be acquiring the rights to/funding original podcasts left-and-right, and certainly not in serious bulk. Still, any news on original podcast ambitions by Apple should have an eye kept on due to the massive reach of iOS that Apple’s podcast app is default-installed on. An Apple original podcast might not be able to fill the Joe Rogan sized-hole that will be left later on in 2020, but successfully launching new spinoff podcasts to accompany the highest profile Apple TV+ originals like S2 of “The Morning Show” could distract some more casual podcast listeners from the fact that the Joe Rogan is missing from Apple’s podcast catalog in the first place.