Episode 68: Podcast Saga Part 21 - Opportunities


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            First and foremost, this episode is still not sponsored by Audible. I will admit that in some ways, it would be great if it was, but it’s not. Really. There’s no affiliate link or special code I’m giving you, even if merely mentioning this sponsorship-happy entity is suspicious. Which it is. But I promise I’m not sponsored. However, I can only hope you believe me because I need to talk about this.

            When I was working on last week’s episode, mentioning the Audible Original It Burns caused something to click in my mind. It wasn’t quite a moment of inspiration. It was more like a seed planted that grew over the course of the week until script writing day.

            Basically, while It Burns hasn’t been released for free on podcast players, other Audible Originals have. The ones on my podcast player are The Butterfly Effect, The Last Days of August, and parts of Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel. All of which have adult themes, by the way. In case you were going to add them to your list. And here’s the thing: I didn’t know about their true nature when I downloaded them.

            With Audible being such a juggernaut in audio-based media, it seemed to make sense that they too would dive into podcasting like the streaming service Spotify is doing, but if you open the Audible app or website prior to them hitting the podcast world or even after, they sat or sit amongst other audiobooks essentially as audiobooks, just a special category of them known as Audible Originals. A category of audiobooks that tends to be a bit cheaper, which may be because they do trend towards being a bit shorter than average or because they are produced directly by Audible, potentially allowing them to cut down on the costs that come from having to work with a third-party publisher.

            Audible Originals are also became a perk for signing up for a membership. Now, in addition to one free audiobook per month, subscribers also get two Audible Originals. Once again, it might be because Audible controls all distribution to these products. Soft asterisk on that for now.

            Because they do to an extent. We’re starting to get into contract law and the nuance of only speculating on an arrangement that isn’t being talked about, but even looking at the ambiguities that come with examining something at this great of a distance, there is still something to be said about podcasting and Audible’s at times strained relationship with what could be considered its greatest competitor or greatest resource.

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            Because regardless of what their intentions may have been in making these originals, and I do have my theories, Audible was striking this weird bridge between traditional audiobooks and podcasts. And I couldn’t find any mention of this on the internet. Which—to be fair—is partially because Audible’s SEO for their own website and marketing material is on point.

            But the point of this is that no matter what any think-piece will tell you, you can’t compare audiobooks with podcasts. Never mind say that audiobooks are superior. These are different entities, and while comparing them might make it easy to discredit the thing that you cannot control or that is new and scary, it’s missing the point. And Audible is hitting at that point with these specific originals. And while it’s surprisingly simple, I don’t think it’s something we are so inclined to think about.

            So it’s worth mentioning. Remember, this entire saga has been about not taking what makes podcasting great for granted. And this is part of that.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 68.

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            Okay, so if you don’t know what Audible is… Welcome to the internet. I would tell you tread carefully. Just saying. Okay I make that joke because Audible has jammed advertisements everywhere but also not everywhere. Audible has focused a lot of its advertising and promotional materials on established podcasts and YouTube channels that, for lack of a better word, can be somewhat neutral. They may have an informational angle to them but no ideology. Think financial life advice. Or just general feel good content like a comedy YouTuber. And even then, I’ve noticed that these advertisements--usually seen as a sign that the content creator had (quote) “made it”—have become a bit more sparse lately.

            Now, there are a couple different reasons for this that don’t have anything to do with these originals. Fair enough on that. For one, there’s an influx of these kinds of (quote) “throw a bunch of money into internet sponsorship” advertisers. So Audible doesn’t have the same prestige or power that it used to. On the other hand, maybe they’ve put so much into the influencer stock that the return on the investment just isn’t there anymore.

            But here’s the thing, at least to me. Audible always presented itself as “audiobooks for everyone.” So maybe you’d never listened to an audiobook or had never considered it as an entertainment option before. Well, now you can. It’s so easy. It’s just an app on your phon,e not a series of CDs. And maybe that’s why they focused on having new media type people who—as I discussed last week—are seen as an “everyman” or “buddy next door type” figure presenting their product. It plays into that image that audiobooks, specifically through Audible can be and are for everyone.

            And that’s a nice image, but here’s the problem with that. Not everyone likes audio-based entertainment.


            Anecdotes aren’t great evidence, but to illustrate a point, despite having a child who now makes podcasts, my mom doesn’t like audio-based entertainment. You see, she can’t focus on sounds for extend periods of time. And there’s a reason for it. After decades of working with children, even when one isn’t around, she still doesn’t like having that particularly sense distracted or otherwise committed. When you’re working with kids, in her experience, you often hear a problem before anything else.

            But that’s just her. For all of us, our reality affects if not outright dictates our media preferences, you could say. And for a population raised on the wonders of visual media, woo boy, audiobooks might be a tough sell. Not impossible. But a bit tough.

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            Compare that to a population whose main source of entertainment is audio-based. Like podcasting. I mean, you don’t have to convince them to change the style of entertainment they enjoy. You just have to bridge the gap to reach them. Potentially by giving them the sorts of things you know they like.

            I think it’s telling that for all the originals Audible has at their disposal, these are the shows they are leading with or straying out from behind their usual paywall with.

            But here’s where we get into a bit of grey area. If you look at the feeds of the shows that have been made available to podcast listeners and not just Audible members, you see that they are attributed to a representative of the host or personality that the show is anchored in. The logo retains the Audible Original branding, however. And that’s what contributes to my suspicion that Audible—whose parent company is Amazon—supports this because they suspect they will get some sort of benefit from this arrangement or lack of exclusivity. With that belief, they would insist on an attribution in the most visible spot to get the benefit without insisting so much as for it to be off-putting.

            On the other hand, it’s also telling that this is happening at all. Audible has enough power in the audio media world to insist that these properties stay on their platform only. To diverge from that suggests there is an endgame they are working towards. And I think that endgame involves podcasting to the point that they took the time to understand it and now are reaching out towards it.

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            As an Audible member, myself, once again I promise I’m not sponsored, I can tell you about the kinds of originals a member might elect to get with their benefits. There’s the typical audiobook fare, audiobooks that sounds more like audio dramas with different voice actors for all the parts, and then there’s the potential podcast shows, as I call them— or any originals that take on a more podcast feel. And part of that, firstly, with that more episodic nature.

            And I’m going to have to unpack that. But basically, podcasts have to structure their episodes more like a television show would rather than book chapters. Television episodes might need to build momentum for the entire series or season, but they have something vaguely akin to a sense of closure at the end and a clear starting point at the beginning. This is by design You can’t leave your audience so curious as to be frustrated not come by out of that frustration, and you need it to be possible for someone just jumping in to be able to understand enough of what came before to keep watching.

            The profits involved in syndication turned television into a medium somewhat divorced from time. For podcasting, this has happened as well, but it’s more a practical thing. Episode production takes time. And it might be time that has numerous other demands on it. Never mind that you can’t be sure a listener who found you would start at the beginning, particularly when podcast players often default to playing the newest episode first.

            Chapter breaks in books might be suggested stopping places, but because the reader is supposed to be in control of that experience and can come and go as they please, the larger arc takes precedent over the individual arcs of the chapters. In short, an author doesn’t have to give you a clear stopping point. You take one when you want one. Reader discretion is the norm.

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            The Audible Originals I listed do have more of a structure to them. Each episode of Where Should We Begin is the tale of one anonymous couple in counseling. The Butterfly Effect walks through different aspects of the adult industry one portion at a time. On the other hand, this argument is a little bit weaker with The Last Days of August. In that, it is an investigation and is conducted according. And Jon Ronson does a good job at keeping the pieces interconnected while building this up. But for that, you could say it’s par for the course. I don’t mean it to be a coop out to say that different genres have different norms, but that kind of is factually the case. Different subgenres have to adhere to different rules regardless of the medium

            But even in that case, I would still say that this applies to a degree. It isn’t great to listen to the episodes or chapters out of order, but it can be done. In the same way that jumping into a television show midseason isn’t ideal but possible. Jumping into a book halfway through… I’d hesitate on that one.

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            Second, and I think this is more important. There is a blend between the narrator and the writer that you see both in Audible originals and podcasts. In that, one person usually plays both roles. Because podcasting developed and have largely remained a venue for people speaking their own truths or telling their own stories, a voice on the feed and source of the words generally are all the same. Or that’s what the audience is inclined to think at the very least.

            On the other hand, audiobooks work more like an intermediary between the initial author or book and the listener. In many ways, audiobooks are a way of expanding an audience for an already existing product or story. And this isn’t meant to be critical, not in the slightest. But when I’m listening to an audiobook, I don’t think that I’m listening to the author. Sometimes I am, yes, especially in nonfiction, but usually, there is a narrator performing the role of a character, usually the point of view character.

            For example, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a story narrated by a sixteen-year-old girl. For all his talents, he cannot pretend to be a sixteen-year-old girl. Instead, the production company found an amazing actress to voice the point of view character Hazel Grace Lancaster. And it worked out great.

            Intentional or not, and it might not be. Once again, it’s one less expense, but these Audible Originals hit that blend that defines podcasing. And that starts to tap into the parasocial interactions that seep into new media-slash-influencer type spaces. It crosses that barrier between old and new simply to save money or by replicating or some other coincidence.

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            Once again, I think intention and effect need to be considered separately. Particularly now, as we cannot exactly know what Audible deliberately did or what just happened. But I personally doubt that this could be an accident of fate. After all, Audible is owned by Amazon--a company defined by strategic decisions and doing whatever it will take for long term profits. Never mind that seemingly every company is trying to get in on this podcast craze.

            So I personally think this is calculated. I think there’s no way it could not be, but I do recognize there’s a chance that I’m wrong.

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            Really, the main argument would be that the originally released titles were the more risky ones. For all the controversy in the chili pepper world, It Burns is largely family friendly. The others, not so much.

            The three shows I list are the sorts of things that are (quote) “hard-sells.” They talk about heavy, adult, and controversial subject matter. They are the sorts of things that would make and executive take a moment’s pause or hesitate before likely outright rejecting them. That’s different now, especially in the podcasting space. These aren’t the taboo forbidden topics that they were in the past. In podcasting, these topics aren’t necessarily par for the course because there is no course. If subjects like this are handled with an appropriate air of care and concern and have their labels, fair enough. And these shows do handle their subject matter appropriately.

            But remember what I said about what made this possible in podcasting: the fact that there was no barrier of entry in terms of a gatekeeper, stemming from the fact that no money was involved. Or the perception that no money could be made kept some people out.

            But for Audible, the opposite extreme is true. With Amazon backing—a company famous for a strategy of almost hemorrhaging money in the short term to develop enough of a consumer base for long term success—Audible doesn’t have to care about conventions or norms. Something like a podcast about the adult film industry might turn off other production companies, but Audible doesn’t have to care. Sure, controversies may come up, but they will pass. And you’re left with some great, free marketing.

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            There is an irony to that. Audible’s entrance into the podcast space—at least by letting their originals seep onto podcast players—is somewhat ironic. They are trying or willing to adhere more strongly to those norms, and they are norms that were initially born out of a lack of financial element. But Audible is not doing this because they don’t have a financial interest but because they have an excess of both interest and opportunity.

            With all that being said, it’s too soon to tell what will come of this dip into the pool, if anything. But I can’t help but think this is the start of something, and I’m interested to see what Audible will do with it.

            Because at the core of it, Audible entering podcasting just makes sense. Even if nothing I say is true, Audible producing podcasts is the most logic step. If it truly wants to be the ultimate in audio-based content, how is this not common sense?

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            This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. Thank you for listening! Follow us on Twitter @miscellanymedia for updates on developing projects, like Aishi Online: an audio fiction show about existing on the social internet.

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