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Hope everyone is staying cool this summer. Today, I take a look at Audible’s new chief content officer and what her role will entail in Amazon’s bigger audio strategy. I also have an exclusive interview for you from the creators of iHeartMedia’s NextUp Initiative, a six-month fellowship for underrepresented podcast creators.
The Chief Audio Officer Summit begins tomorrow in Los Angeles. Spotify and Wondery will both be hosting summits on Thursday, too. I’ll be in attendance, so you can look forward to my recap in another edition of Hot Pod.
Finally, this just in before publication time: Trisha Paytas is cutting ties with Colleen Ballinger, with whom she co-hosted the YouTube podcast Oversharing. If you’re unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding Ballinger, also known as Miranda Sings, the former YouTuber faces a number of grooming allegations from her youngest fans. Ballinger responded to the allegations with a shockingly tone-deaf ukulele video that contained the lyrics, “I’m not a groomer, I’m just a loser.” I hesitate to link to it because I don’t want to add to her YouTube revenue. The 36-year-old comedian was also scheduled to host a live tour this summer, which The Daily Beast reported appears to have been canceled.
Audible taps Rachel Ghiazza to serve as chief content officer
Audible’s new chief content officer will be Rachel Ghiazza, who has been heading US content at the audiobook platform since 2020. The promotion means Ghiazza will be in charge of every stage of content from development to production and also manage relations with talent, publishers, and partners. The publisher’s side of the equation is key. Audible has butt heads with publishing houses in the past over publishing rights and new features (echoing an older fight between Amazon and ebooks). But given that audiobooks are the fastest-growing segment of the publishing industry and Audible controls an estimated 63 percent of it, the publishers are unlikely to leave money on the table. Ghiazza is a Spotify alum who spent more than five years at the streaming platform heading its global content experiences team.
But Ghiazza will also be tasked with leading the push for globalized Audible originals and growing the company’s library of podcasts and audiobooks. She helped support the launch and development of Audible Plus, as well as in-house brands such as Audible Theater and Words + Music. She’s also worked with a number of high-profile productions, including Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground and James Patterson Entertainment.
This year, Audible has commissioned a number of high-profile podcasts and audiobooks, including a slate of original podcasts with UK comedians like Daisy May Cooper, Lolly Adefope, and Mo Gilligan. It also greenlit two Audible Original podcasts from the producer of the Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler. Just today, Audible announced a new scripted audio series with Broadway Video called Yes We Cannabis that will debut exclusively on the Amazon-owned platform and feature Sam Richardson, Langston Kerman, Punkie Johnson, and Method Man.
The sheer size of Amazon means that podcasts and audiobooks are a tiny, tiny fraction of its annual spending, and so it has the freedom to experiment with content.
Elsewhere at Amazon, the company appears to still be focused on leveling up its audio game. This spring, the company quietly acquired Snackable AI, an audio discovery platform, to help build out Amazon Music’s podcast features. Last year, Amazon Music also paid a jaw-dropping $100 million for exclusive ad and distribution rights to My Favorite Murder, which went on to become a regular on Podtrac’s top 20 podcasts — where it remains to this day.
But where exactly is the e-commerce giant headed with audio? Right now, Amazon has three separate divisions working on original audio content. The company has Audible, Amazon Music, and Wondery (which is under Amazon Music), and all three produce original podcasts. The sheer size of Amazon means that podcasts and audiobooks are a tiny, tiny fraction of its annual spending, and so it has the freedom to experiment with content. While Amazon Studios’ spending on original TV shows is facing more scrutiny from leadership, the company’s audio efforts equate to pennies lost in the couch cushions — and so far show no signs of stopping.
iHeartMedia’s NextUp founders Anna Hossnieh and Joelle Smith on finding diverse podcast voices
How diverse is podcasting in 2023, exactly? A 2022 Edison Research Infinite Dial survey reveals that podcasting may be slightly more diverse than other creative fields as well as the country itself; about half of podcast hosts are white, roughly a quarter (or 24 percent) are Hispanic and Latino, and 14 percent are Black. Meanwhile, the racial breakdown of monthly podcast audiences is roughly similar to the US population, with 59 percent of listeners identifying as white, 16 percent identifying as Latino or Hispanic, 16 percent identifying as Black, and 3 percent identifying as Asian.
Achieving racial parity is a big deal for the podcast industry, but that diversity hasn’t been reflected in the amount of attention and money devoted to creators. The most frequently listened-to podcasts on Podtrac are mostly from white and/or male creators. Meanwhile, gender parity seems to be the podcast industry’s major struggle at the moment — a total of 69 percent of podcast hosts are men, 29 percent are women, and 2 percent identify as nonbinary. In other words, the podcast bro archetype is very real.
Podcast companies have all (at least publicly) voiced their desire to highlight diverse creators or shows featuring stories from underrepresented backgrounds. Whether they actually do so or not is a different story. At this year’s IAB Podcast Upfront, companies like NPR, iHeart Podcasts, SiriusXM, and Cumulus Media spoke about the need to highlight diverse creators. Diversity certainly sounds good when pitched onstage to advertisers — but what concrete steps are companies actually taking?
I spoke to Anna Hossnieh and Joelle Smith, the two co-founders of iHeartMedia’s NextUp Initiative for underrepresented podcast hosts, to learn more. Essentially, the program serves as a sort of incubator for promising podcast hosts from underrepresented backgrounds. Each year’s fellows embark on a six-month training program where they develop and produce their own podcast.
So this country has a long history of immigrant radio, where we’ve seen groups like the Carribean community or Black Americans flock to radio because it was a cheap way of getting out information. I would love to hear your thoughts on kind of the barriers to entry in the audio industry. What prevents people of color from pursuing careers in audio, either in production or as creators?
Joelle Smith: I think radio is a good example, in that once you have that basic system and understanding of technology, it’s fairly simple and, as you say, inexpensive to get started. But podcasting is really not that way. You can maybe get some of that equipment secondhand. But if your podcast doesn’t sound crystal clear, you can’t retain listeners.
For me, I’ve worked in the podcast landscape since 2014. I couldn’t get a real paid job until 2020, when iHeart hired me. My friend Dani Fernandez was hosting [Nerdificent] on the network and brought me in as a researcher on a freelance basis. And by March of that year, they hired me full-time to executive produce Fake Doctors, Real Friends with Zach and Donald. So it was a real whirlwind of events after years of not only making my own podcasts with my friends but of working for smaller networks that have no intention of paying their talent or really developing them. It was me doing three shows a night for two and a half years, just building up my skills as a host and a producer. I started training kids at this network I was working at and developing them into new talent.
I think the other thing, past the financial barrier, is the connections. How are you building these connections in order to land in the podcast industry? A lot of the people we spoke to, they’re like, ‘I don’t know who to talk to, and I don’t know who will take my show seriously, and how do I get people that others want to hear on my show?’ It’s so much easier when you’re within the iHeartMedia binary. Suddenly, there’s a lot more attention when folks understand you have the skillset and that you live in a space where it’s worth their time to show up and appear on your show.
When fellows come to you, they’re at varying levels of skills and ability, where some are pretty much set on a professional level and others are not. How do you take your fellows through the process of going from an idea to a fully formed show?
Anna Hossnieh: We start with a two-week intensive orientation, where over Zoom, they take about 20 to 30 different classes. We get different people from all over the network to volunteer their time to do these lectures for them, from hosting and development to editing and using your equipment. We cover all different avenues, from recording to literally how to speak on the mic. We try and get different people to talk on all these different topics. And once we get through that two-week orientation, the core team — which is about five of us now — starts having individual meetings with each fellow. We sit there and go through their idea, and we break down how we really do it. We start getting into the weeds about how to develop their show. How do you want your show to sound?
Right now, we’re in the middle of listening to the first drafts of either the first or second episode we’re working on. We basically use all of our connections to basically hook them up with people. They have an editing mentor outside of iHeart, and they have another mentor at the network so they have another ear to bounce ideas off of.
You can read more about this year’s crop of NextUp fellows, which include Roya Ramezankhani, Leatra B. Tate, Joseph, Devarah “Dee” Borrego, Nicole Garcia, Autumn Harris, Shianne Salazar, and Patty Mulloy here.