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In this edition: Apple’s podcast flex and the McDaniel-Huberman media split-screen.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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March 31, 2024


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we were hoping for a light Easter newsletter, but the news keeps coming.

This week was a real object lesson in how to get fired in 2024 — and how not to.

Ronna McDaniel has now been booted from two iconic American institutions in quick succession: She got fired from her position as Republican National Committee chair when she went on what Michael Wolff charitably called an “administrative strike.” And she got fired from a well-paid NBC News contributor gig when the staff deemed her post-election conduct beyond the pale.

Andrew Huberman, meanwhile, is a famous podcaster (either you know him or the details don’t matter) who was the subject of a messy New York Magazine story about his personal life. He’s a new-style media figure, a kind of mega-influencer who doesn’t depend on institutions for his success. Had he worked for a political party or television network, a story like that might have been at least a minor threat. But he works for himself, so as long as the green juice company that sponsors him sticks around, he’s fine. (And if they don’t, he can sell his own green juice.)

The lesson here, as my old Times colleague Nayeema Raza recently noted, is that if you don’t work for a big three-letter institution, you can’t get fired. You’d rather be Huberman than McDaniel.

Also today: Apple flexes its podcast muscle, Netflix passes on a controversial documentary, top international journalists gather in our New York office, and McKay Coppins texts about journalism and faith. (Scoop count: 5.)

Semafor has opened registration for the 2024 World Economy Summit – our most ambitious venture in live journalism yet and the only major media event to be held against the background of the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C. on April 17-18. The speaker lineup is an incredible roster of top U.S. and global economic, business, and political figures, and we hope you’ll check it out.

Assignment Desk
Photo Illustration via Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Think of the children: A much-publicized new book argues that social media is causing a surge of mental illness in teens, but a review in Nature said its “scary” thesis lacks evidence and will “distract us from tackling the real causes,” our colleague Tom Chivers notes in Semafor Flagship.

The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt “is going to sell a lot of copies,” psychologist Candice Odgers wrote, because it is telling a story “many parents are primed to believe.” But Odgers and many others have searched for the big effects Haidt claims, and have found, variously, “no, small and mixed associations” between social media and mental health. Some of Haidt’s prescriptions, such as stronger content moderation, are reasonable, but “there is no evidence that using these platforms is rewiring children’s brains.” Chivers has been on this topic for years, but has so far failed to stem the tide of trend stories.

Max Tani

Apple muscles in on subscription podcasts

Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

To get their show featured at the top of the Apple Podcasts feed, one of the best placements in the audio world, podcasters fill out a form, send it to Apple, and hope for the best.

The other, quicker way is to simply give the company a slice of their revenue.

Last week, five of the first seven podcasts promoted on the “browse” carousel in the Apple Podcasts app were participating in Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, the program the tech company rolled out in 2021 for shows to monetize bonus episodes, segments, and other content.

This wasn’t an accident. An executive at an independent podcast told Semafor that in recent months, when they asked the company how they could be promoted in the carousel, Apple leaders suggested that the show participate in the platform’s new subscription program. Another podcast exec told Semafor that while Apple Podcasts Subscriptions wasn’t a huge moneymaker for them, it was worth participating for the benefit of the podcast feed placement.

The company’s podcast team selects various shows for inclusion in the top slots, some of which are not participants in the revenue share. But since launching Apple Podcasts Subscriptions in 2021, it has tried to funnel podcast creators and shows into the subscription service. And, as one person at Apple put it to Semafor, the company has designed the Apple Podcasts app to offer more features to shows that opt in to Apple’s subscription product, including reserving slots for them in the top carousel.

Read on for more from Max's view and Apple's history of monetization choices. →

One Good Text

McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the bestselling biography ”Romney: A Reckoning.”


✰ Hollywood

Netflix has passed on “Icarus: The Aftermath,” the sequel to the documentary that won the service its first Academy Award for a feature doc in 2018. The film follows Grigory Rodchenkov, an architect of the Russian doping program that tainted the 2014 Sochi Olympic games, as he enters into the witness protection program in the United States.

Icarus: The Aftermath screened at Telluride in September of 2022, where it received positive notices. The Hollywood Reporter called it “documentary as spy thriller, a portrait of institutional gaslighting, a legal nail-biter, an intimate look at the cost of refuting authoritarian doctrine, and, above all, an affecting character study.”

Two people close to the producers say they believe it hasn’t sold because distributors are increasingly leery of hard-edged political documentaries in general, as they shift their focus to lighter sports and celebrity projects. They also worry that distributors are wary of Russian cyberattacks in retaliation.

Fogel confirmed by email that the film has not yet found a distributor, but declined to comment further. He complained publicly that his most recent film, The Dissident, didn’t sell because streamers were afraid of angering Saudi Arabia with a film focused on the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A Netflix spokesperson denied that hacking fears had anything to do with their calculus, and the service did just pick up Alex Gibney’s film about the Russian exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Citizen K. — Ben

Still dying: The DVD business somehow still exists — and generated $1.36 billion in sales last year. (This per a Variety story headlined: “The DVD Biz Has Circled the Drain for Years. In 2024, It Goes Down the Tubes.”)

⁛ News

Anthony Pompliano in 2018.
Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Pomp’s circumstance: A high-profile crypto investor and podcaster is building out his independent media operation, adding original reporting and analysis. Over the last several years, Anthony “Pomp” Pompliano has become a well-known figure in financial news circles with his commentary on Bitcoin, his podcast, and his increasingly popular Substack, which has over 250,000 subscribers.

Semafor has learned that in the coming days, Pompliano will announce that he’s launching a new media organization with Phil Rosen, a senior business and markets journalist. The duo have already sold ads for a new daily financial publication, which will have high-profile interviews, analysis, and some original reporting. Rosen previously wrote Business Insider’s 10 Things Before the Opening Bell, a daily newsletter with nearly 2.5 million subscribers. — Max

Iran attack: A story that doesn’t get enough attention is the dangers facing enemies and critics of Iran, even in the West. The recent attack on Salman Rushdie remains bizarrely undercovered. And last week, a presenter for Iran International, a particular target of the regime’s fury, was brutally attacked and stabbed on his way to work in the middle of the afternoon in London.

Good doc: Sreenivasan Jain’s Al Jazeera documentary about the fall of India’s independent news outlets and the rise of “Godi media” is well-worth the half-hour.

Blind spots: Few commentators expected a group of ISIS-K Tajik terrorists to allegedly attack Moscow — partly because coverage of Central Asia has evaporated over the last decade, according to a well-timed dispatch from Peter Leonard in Eurasianet.

Getting out of town: Radio Free Asia has folded its Hong Kong bureau.

Taking access journalism a bit far: “Several colleagues of one former White House correspondent for a major newspaper described them hosting a dinner party where all the food was served on gold-rimmed Air Force One plates, evidently taken bit by bit over the course of some time,” per a much-discussed West Wing Playbook item.

Sightings: We were pleased to see great global journalists including TVRain founding editor-in-chief Mikhail Zygar, Scroll co-founder Samir Patil, The New Yorker’s David Remnick, MSNBC’s Ari Melber, our own David Weigel, and correspondents from Le Monde, Xinhua, Israel’s Channel 13, and more in … our own New York office to toast the launch of the Semafor Global Election Hub last week.

⁜ Tech


Bundled up: ValueAct, a hedge fund and New York Times investor, produced this remarkable chart in the course of weighing in on Bob Iger’s side of the Disney shareholder brawl.

Bots, what are they for: Semafor’s chief bot Gina Chua eloquently explains to Quartz how we think about AI: “Essentially, you’ve got an English major that can do a lot of stuff.”

Deepfakes in the wild: A leading Russian news channel, NTV, ran a deepfaked video of a top Ukrainian official supposedly calling the Moscow terror attack “very fun.”

☊ Audio

Big in Indiranagar: The backlash to criticism of Huberman reached an affluent Bangalore neighborhood. (Photo used with permission of @ramyakh.)

Softballs: Lex Fridman has become the tech CEO interviewer of (the CEOs’) choice, Bloomberg reports: “Why risk putting an executive in front of an incisive journalist when there’s a gentler route?”

✦ Marketing

Dept. of Ouroboros: Reddit is using AI to help marketers sound like Redditors.

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