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As future of podcasts booms, Hollywood uses the space as testing ground for bankable content

The New York Times
·12-min read

In November, production began in Los Angeles on a new series with the trappings of a potential hit.

Unwanted is a buddy action comedy told with a wink, part Beverly Hills Cop homage and part Seth Rogen-esque genre sendup. It stars Lamorne Morris (Woke and New Girl) and Billy Magnussen (Game Night) as slackers who stumble on criminal intrigue in between bong hits, and its script is stocked with gross-out humour. (Sample line: "When I told you I dropped my phone in the toilet, that wasn't the whole story.")

But Unwanted is not the latest Netflix comedy; it's a podcast €" or at least is starting out that way. The show's first two episodes were released this week by QCode Media, a 2-year-old company whose podcasts, with big names and high production values, are all but audio pitches for film and television. In July, for example, QCode introduced Dirty Diana, an erotic drama starring Demi Moore; by September, Amazon made a deal to turn it into a TV series.

A frothy adaptation market in Hollywood is just one sign of the rapid evolution of podcasting. Though the format dates to the early 2000s €" it is named after the iPod €" podcasting has had an expansive growth spurt the last few years. Since 2018, the number of available shows has more than tripled, to around 2 million. Spotify, Amazon, SiriusXM, iHeartMedia and other major streaming and traditional media companies have poured about $2 billion into the industry, both chasing and fueling its growth. Celebrities, even former presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are piling in, looking at on-demand audio as a key brand-building channel.

Once seen as a marginal forum for comedy, tech talk and public radio programming, podcasting is one of the hottest corners in media. Yet its formats and business practices are still developing, leading producers, executives and talent to view the medium as akin to television circa 1949: lucrative and uncharted territory with plenty of room for experimentation and flag-planting.

"It's a new frontier, and we love it," said Morris, who is also a creator and executive producer of Unwanted.

But along with the optimism come worries that big money may stifle the DIY spirit vital to podcasting's identity. Indie podcasters, used to an open and decentralised distribution system, fear being marginalised if the tech giants push through pay walls and exclusive deals. And as podcasting becomes big business, there is unease that the diversity of voices in our earbuds €" never a strong suit of the industry €" could be put at risk too.

Nick Quah, who writes the Hot Pod newsletter, said that corporate interests tend to run contrary to what has always made podcasting interesting: the idea that anyone, anywhere, can bubble up and find an audience.

"As we move forward and more of these platforms assume a stronger gatekeeping position," Quah said, "there's a strong possibility for new voices to get pushed out of the space. That's a real concern."

Cracking the Code of the Podcast Adaptation

For the average listener, the most noticeable change in podcasting's immediate future may simply be higher-quality shows.

The influx of money €" from tech platforms, advertisers and Hollywood €" has attracted talent and driven spending on production resources. Podcasting executives say they are now flooded with pitches for new shows, often from A-list writers, directors and performers.

"What you're seeing now is this incredible flowering of creativity," said Lydia Polgreen, a former HuffPost and New York Times editor who is now managing director of Gimlet Media, a Spotify-owned studio.

For Hollywood, the podcasting space has become a farm team for intellectual property €" where storylines can be tested out and promising material scooped up relatively cheaply. And with the movie business dominated by remakes, superhero franchises and other tent-pole mega-productions, the freedom podcasting provides is also refreshing, said Rob Herting, a former agent at the Creative Artists Agency who founded QCode.

"I had gotten tired of the repurposing of old intellectual property," Herting said. "I kind of yearn for original stories. This felt like such a great outlet for those, a place where you can go to be bold, experiment and move quickly."

QCode launched in early 2019 with Blackout, starring Rami Malek as a radio DJ in a small New England town when the national power grid mysteriously goes dark. The company now has a portfolio of 11 series, including Hank the Cow Dog, a children's show with Matthew McConaughey, and Carrier, a thriller starring Cynthia Erivo that showcases another feature of many of the best podcasts: intense, consuming sound design. QCode plans 15 new podcasts in 2021.

Modest budgets and quick turnaround time enable more risk-taking. Most of QCode's shows cost in the low to mid-six figures to make, Herting said €" orders of magnitude less than a film or TV project €" and an eight-episode podcast can be taped in just a week or two. A comparable TV season, Morris said, could take two months to shoot.

A successful adaptation into film or television can generate $1 million or more for podcast creators, far exceeding what most shows can collect from advertising. (The entire ad market for podcasts was estimated to be less than $1 billion last year, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.)

But as the audience for podcasts grows €" at least 104 million Americans listen each month, according to a survey last year by Edison Research and Triton Digital €" TV and film properties are increasingly being adapted into audio shows as well.

"It really is a two-way street," said Josh Lindgren, a podcast agent at CAA. "It's not just that Hollywood is coming to gobble up all the podcast IP and turn it into TV shows."

Walled Gardens and the Future of Indies

Hollywood deals have taken podcasting far from its shoestring origins. But the growth story has been building for years.

The first mainstream hit arrived in 2014 with Serial, an investigative look at the murder of a teenage girl that was made by veteran public-radio journalists. The show €" and the media attention it received €" demonstrated the format's storytelling and marketing potential.

New stars were minted. Leon Neyfakh was a Slate staff writer in 2017 when he hosted the first season of Slow Burn, a meticulous examination of the Watergate scandal.

As a writer, Neyfakh said, he was dispirited to find that long feature stories, which had taken months of work, would yield just a few minutes of "average engaged time" from readers. But Slow Burn fans would spend hours with the show, listening through to the end of episodes that lasted 30, 40 minutes or more.

"People are just willing to give you more of their attention in podcasting than they are in print," Neyfakh said.

Epix turned the Watergate season of Slow Burn into a TV documentary and an anthology series starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn is heading to Starz. (Neyfakh's current history podcast is Fiasco, which is also being adapted for television.)

Along with high-minded journalism came a flood of comedian-led talk shows, pop-culture gabfests, sex and self-help shows, and every niche dive imaginable. In 2017, Emily Cross, an indie-rock musician, was joking with a friend about the glut of podcasts when she hit on a Seinfeld-inspired idea.

"What if I just did a podcast about nothing? A podcast about just what I'm looking at," Cross recalled. "I was like: Actually, I really like that idea. So I just started doing it."

For 20 to 30 minutes each week, What I'm Looking At features Cross calmly describing random objects €" her shoes, an apple, a box of toothpicks €" in soothing detail, like a combination Zen relaxation ritual and conceptual art project. She earns no money from it directly (she has supporters on Patreon), but has built a small community of followers who email her comments after every episode.

Shows like Slow Burn and What I'm Looking At exemplify the power and charm of podcasting €" an intimate, technologically simple medium that can help forge a connection with an audience over any topic, weighty or whimsical.

That power, and the lure of greater advertising dollars, has begun to draw big investment. In 2018, iHeartMedia, the broadcast radio giant, paid $55 million for Stuff Media, the studio behind hits like Stuff You Should Know. Last year, SiriusXM acquired Stitcher, a popular app and distributor, for at least $265 million. And in late December, Amazon agreed to buy Wondery (Dr. Death, Dirty John) at a price estimated at more than $300 million.

Over the last two years, Spotify has paid more than $800 million for a series of podcasting companies, like Gimlet, the Ringer and Anchor. Spotify has also struck content deals with the Obamas, Kim Kardashian West, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and comedian Joe Rogan, whose no-holds-barred talk €" including with guests like Alex Jones €" has made him podcasting's closest thing to Howard Stern.

Spending has amped up competition among platforms, many of which have begun to protect their investments by keeping content inside so-called walled gardens, accessible only to subscribers. Spotify, which keeps some shows within its walls, has made it clear that it views podcasts as a way to attract new customers to its service. This month, Spotify said that a quarter of its 345 million customers listen to podcasts.

"There is no question that podcasting is helping drive more people to Spotify than ever before," said Dawn Ostroff, the company's chief content and advertising business officer. "That's really our goal at this point."

A Diversity Downside?

Lory Martinez, a Colombian American podcaster, keeps her grandfather's press card at her desk in Paris.

He was a newspaper reporter in Colombia who covered the country's Indigenous communities, and saw his role as bringing those people's stories and perspectives to the entire nation. His approach inspired the mission of Martinez's company, Studio Ochenta: "Raising voices across cultures."

Ochenta began a year and a half ago with Mija, a short-form podcast about the life of an immigrant daughter from Queens €" modelled after Martinez herself €" that was released in English, Spanish and French. It reached No. 1 on iTunes's fiction podcast charts in 13 countries, and its third season, about an Egyptian Muslim character in Britain and the US, will be released in April in English, Spanish and Arabic.

"There is now more of a space for voices than you would traditionally hear, and they are appearing in podcasting," Martinez said. "They're not only making podcasts, they are starting companies. That's what's so exciting about this time."

But Martinez said that starting her own company may have been the only way to get her shows €" and her multilingual, multicultural approach €" to market.

"I don't think Mija would have been made if I pitched it elsewhere," Martinez said.

Increasing corporatisation, and the incentive for platforms to favour the shows they own, has intensified concerns that podcasts from underrepresented groups could enjoy less promotion, find fewer listeners and collect less advertising revenue €" a vicious cycle that would repeat many of the failings of the old media model.

For all the rah-rah talk of podcasts as a democratised medium, building diversity has been a slow undertaking. In 2008, for example, 73 percent of monthly listeners in the United States were white. In those days, "the average podcast you listened to was two white dudes talking about internet routers, and the audience reflected that," said Tom Webster of Edison Research.

Last year, Edison and Triton found that white listeners' slice of the pie had narrowed to 63 percent, nearly mirroring the 60 percent of Americans who identify as white in census data. But the representation behind the microphone still lags.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, a former journalist at NPR and The Atlantic who founded a production company focused on work by people of colour, said that media and tech companies should look at diversity as a business imperative, given the country's shifting demographics and the devoted audiences that companies like Studio Ochenta are building.

"In the rush to secure the players that look like sure bets," Lantigua-Williams said, "they are overlooking the creators who are really growing audiences that are going to stay with them five, 10 years down the line."

Opportunities for Creativity

For a star like Morris, the question of access to media is less of an issue. But even for him, podcasts offer a rare opportunity €" to test a new idea, quickly and cheaply.

"When you're a creative person, you need an outlet," Morris said. "You can't always say, 'Let's go and make a $50 million movie.' But you can sit down, record, say your idea out loud."

For now, many podcasters say, the money spent by platforms, media companies and advertisers has helped enable experimentation in the format and a sharpening of storytelling techniques.

Early fiction hits like Gimlet's Homecoming, from 2016, about a therapist working with returning soldiers, demonstrated some of the potential for innovation, with crosscut scenes and varying audio treatment of voices to indicate different environments €" a high-tech take on techniques first heard in 1930s radio dramas. (Homecoming became a TV series on Amazon starring Roberts and then Janelle Monáe.)

More recently, shows like Audible's When You Finish Saving the World, a five-hour drama by Jesse Eisenberg, have tinkered further with narration and storytelling in long-form audio.

Unwanted, Morris said, could very well be a film or television project. (A spokesperson for QCode said no negotiations to adapt it have taken place yet.) The story, he said, was just one of "millions" of ideas that he and Kyle Shevrin, his co-creator and writing partner, have bandied about, and podcasting allowed it to become a reality.

"It's a proof of concept," Morris said, "to say to the industry: This works, this is fun, this is something that can be done."

Ben Sisario c.2021 The New York Times Company

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