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The new conventional wisdom in podcasting is that A-list celebrities and big-budget audio narratives͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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June 26, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we’re onto yet another news app.

As you may have noticed, on Wednesday we accidentally sent you a copy of Semafor Cannes, our pop-up newsletter covering the Cannes Lions advertising industry festival.

My first reaction was, honestly, embarrassment. Here Max and I were at one of the world’s great boondoggles, writing about marketing. (Fortunately, Max had a great story that day on MediaLink, unofficial slogan “no conflict, no interest.”)

Covering advertising has gone out of fashion as the creative side has been pushed aside by technology. The last New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott took a buyout in 2014, after 23 years in the role.

Yet it’s a $766 billion dollar industry, and the money behind much of journalism and entertainment. And there are great stories and characters there at the intersection of business, politics, and culture. We reported from Cannes on advertising’s retreat from politics, its climate critics, Mark Penn’s entrance into the business and — in this issue — about the new shape of the podcast industry.

So we’ll be trying to break more advertising news here going forward, even if we still feel a little abashed about that Riviera boondoggle.

Box Score
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

New York: The notion that Jeff Zucker could buy CNN with a pile of Emirati money is too good to check. — New York Post

France: Exiled Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut “wants to become a ‘good Russian’ and to cleanse himself as much as possible. With that in mind, he decided to create a medium to promote the liberal agenda.” — Meduza

Wuhan: Outsiders and iconoclasts have broken much of the news about COVID’s origins. Zeynep Tufekci wants the US government to say what it knows. — NYT

Following Russia

The Prigozhin rebellion was the biggest geopolitical crisis of this new media environment, and Twitter remained essential — though I found myself reading the feeds of key analysts — Max Seddon, Kevin Rothrock, Rob Lee — directly, while the main feed proved pretty useless and Elon Musk promoted growth hackers. But the real home of the event, as of the Ukraine war, was Telegram. That platform’s main traction in the US is with the far right – Lin Wood and Mike Flynn have big followings.

But for Russians, it’s s a combo of WhatsApp and Twitter. And the main use of Twitter Saturday was to offer context to Telegram posts. As a speaker of quite bad Russian, I was relieved to discover that Telegram Premium offers in-app translation for $5 a month.

Max Tani

Hollywood is leaving podcasting to podcasters

Samir Hussein/WireImage


CANNES — In 2020, Spotify’s stock spiked on the news that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry signed an exclusive deal with the streaming platform.

But when the deal fizzled last week, the leader of one of the biggest global talent agencies, whose business is increasingly focused on audio, said he wasn’t surprised.

“Turns out Megan Markle was not a great audio talent, or necessarily any kind of talent,” United Talent Agency CEO Jeremy Zimmer said over coffee at La Majestic during the Cannes Lions advertising festival. “And, you know, just because you’re famous doesn’t make you great at something.”


Zimmer’s comments reflect the new conventional wisdom in podcasting. Out are A-list celebrities and big-budget audio narratives. The new audio talent is endemic to the medium, and has more in common with talk radio or daytime television personalities than with Windsors.

Among the stars at Cannes were podcasters like Alex Cooper (Spotify), Jameela Jamil (SiriusXM), and Jay Shetty (iHeartMedia). Over the course of two days, the three podcast hosts collectively appeared at 10 events in front of advertisers, discussing wellness, empowerment, and how they’ve cultivated engaged audiences through content that is safe for advertisers.

They were also the subject of attention from the industry’s top figures: Michael Kassan, the wildly connected head of Medialink, was late to a meeting with Semafor because he was meeting with Cooper, and a top executive at the media company Candle broke away from a reporter mid-sentence to chase her. Zimmer dined at Cannes with the true crime podcaster Ashley Flowers.


Spotify has made the most dramatic moves in the space, seeking to displace Apple as the default podcast app and to buy inventory that doesn’t depend on powerful music labels. In 2020 alone, the Swedish public company signed the royals, the Obamas, Joe Rogan, and Kim Kardashian.

This year Spotify cut deeply at the narrative company Gimlet, and will save a reported $20 million over several years on the royals. The platform’s major announcement at last week’s festival was a new weekly podcast with Trevor Noah which will not be windowed — keeping it only on Spotify for a limited period of time — or exclusive, a sign that Spotify is still reliant on the ad dollars and audiences available on the other platforms.

Spotify’s cutbacks and shifting strategy have provided an opening for some of its competitors to attempt to regain ground ceded by the Swedish audio giant.

SiriusXM remains the biggest podcast publisher in the industry. Despite its own staff reductions earlier this year, the satellite company was in Cannes to explain to advertisers a major relaunch coming this fall, which will better elevate and distinguish the individual parts within Sirius including the podcast platform Stitcher.

iHeartMedia, the radio giant formerly known as Clear Channel, has attempted to turn its greatest challenge — the slow decline of terrestrial radio — into an advantage. It has leveraged its large radio reach to bolster its podcasts, relentlessly running promotions for the company’s podcasts on the radio. iHeart has also flipped the script, deploying its podcasts on traditional radio. Some radio stations the company considered shuttering have instead been reprogrammed with more contemporary content: True crime shows.

Audio insiders have also credited CEO Bob Pittman with keeping costs low and ensuring that shows are paid for with ads before the company announces them publicly.

In an interview earlier this month, iHeart podcast head Conal Byrne said that recent events at other audio companies had vindicated iHeart’s strategy of prioritizing long-term shows with proven hosts over flash.

“We have seen others who’ve tried different business models, either exclusively windowing content on one app only or doing sort of quick-turn sales rep deals with large creators to attempt to buy their way into the industry as opposed to building long-term great slates with creators across several years,” he said. “I’ve seen several now start to pivot off of strategies like that. It doesn’t totally surprise me because those strategies were probably destined to not work from day one. It never made sense to us.”

To see Room For Disagreement and more, read here.

One Good Text

Colleen DeCourcy is a legendary admaker who retired as the creative director of the agency Wieden+Kennedy, where her work included Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign, which won a grand prix at Cannes in 2019. She returned on the other side of the business this year as the top marketing executive at Snap.


Tucker, Vlogger: Tucker Carlson’s contract negotiations with Fox have left him posting his new show solely to Twitter. But his old company, The Daily Caller, has quietly taken to reposting them to a channel on YouTube, where they’ve gotten as much as a million views, many times other videos on the channel. Carlson is no longer involved in the Caller, but the channel’s description still begins, “Founded by Tucker Carlson.”

Forget Pickleball: Podcast startup Kaleidoscope has optioned its show on cricket hosted by the rapper Heems. Smuggler, the company led by Tim Pastore, who produced Free Solo and Jane, has agreed to partner with Kaleidoscope on the project.

LA Woes: Los Angeles Times management is offering a newsroom-wide buyout after protests about planned layoffs.

No Logo: London is abuzz with talk of a curious new Naomi Wolf book, “Doppelganger.”


The Titan submersible story was an increasingly rare, shared experience in our increasingly fragmented media landscape where we watch shows at different times, get news from different sources and get our entertainment diet curated based on individual preferences.

On Thursday — the day the Titanic exploration vessel operator OceanGate announced that all five passengers were killed — an estimated 3.33 million tweets were posted about the saga, according to data from social media analytics firm Keyhole.

Google search activity told a similar story. Interest in the saga on Tuesday — days before the topic peaked — was eight times that of Hunter Biden on the day of his plea deal, arguably the biggest piece of domestic news last week.

For more, read here.

— Neal Rothschild

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