Photo: Apple TV+
So, this is interesting. This morning, Apple TV+, the tech giant’s media streaming service, announced an original content production called The Line that’s actually a combination of two different projects spanning two different formats.
The first project is a six-part narrative nonfiction podcast series hosted by Dan Taberski (Missing Richard Simmons, Running From COPS) that debuts today on Apple Podcasts and via RSS feed, which means it’s accessible by every other podcast platform that’s plugged into the open ecosystem. Meanwhile, the second project is a four-part limited documentary series directed by Jeffrey Zimbalist (The Two Escobars) that will be released exclusively on the Apple TV+ platform later in the fall. Both come from Jigsaw Productions, the prolific documentary production company led by Alex Gibney.
The press release describes the two projects as being independently reported productions that both attend to the same subject: the story of Eddie Gallagher, the former U.S. Navy SEAL who was charged in 2018 with committing war crimes in Iraq before ultimately being acquitted for all but one count, which involved Gallagher posing for a photo with a corpse.
Beyond the fact that I’ll pick up anything that Dan Taberski puts down, here’s what I find interesting about this announcement: Apple TV+ seems to be positioning this project as the division’s first original podcast that isn’t strictly a companion marketing piece to one of its television assets, as was the case with the For All Mankind podcast that came out earlier this year. The fact that the company is visibly positioning the podcast series as a parallel but separate experience to the limited documentary series is intriguing detail, though whether or not that positioning is entirely accurate will only bear itself when the latter drops in the fall.
(For what it’s worth, I think there’s at least one precedent for this separate-but-parallel twin podcast-docuseries approach: the combination of the Morally Indefensible podcast and the FX docuseries A Wilderness of Error, both projects about the same story by Marc Smerling that came out last year. Also, I imagine there may well be some similar cross-platform hijinks with the many, many Gamestop projects in development.)
For now, though, I’m revising my general read of Apple’s original podcast adventures. Up to this point, I’ve chiefly interpreted the company’s much-reported interest in original podcast development as being mostly about marketing. There’s the previously mentioned For All Mankind companion podcast, but the past few years have also seen the releases of The Zane Lowe Interview Series (marketing for Apple Music), Apple News Today (marketing for Apple News+), the Oprah’s Book Club podcast (marketing for Apple Books), and the audio recordings of various Apple events that you can find distributed over the Apple Podcasts platform (marketing for… well, the company as a whole).
But what they’re doing with The Line feels like the start of a curious new direction. Additionally, as much as this is a story about Apple TV+ seemingly expanding its creative content interests into original audio, another thread worth noting is what appears to be the Apple Podcasts platform’s on-going neutrality. It’s not lost on me that the original content flowing through Apple Podcasts exclusively comes from other Apple divisions, almost as if the Apple Podcasts platform is insisting on identity that’s nothing more than a cold distribution point as opposed to something more mixed and complicated, as with the case of Spotify.
I’m very, very curious to see what comes next.
➽ Well this is certainly interesting. Yesterday, Clubhouse announced that it is implementing the platform’s first monetization feature: Payments, which allows users to send… well, payments, directly to creators. The tool is being rolled out in an uneven fashion; as of today, every user can send payments, but only a “small test group” can receive payments for now, so it might be a while before the whole thing opens up for everyone. (The payments, by the way, will run through Stripe, which will take a small processing fee.) Take note: The announcement also notes that Clubhouse will not be taking a cut from any payments, so TBD on the revenue front. In any case, the heat is on.
➽ Wondery is reportedly planning to double its staff this year now that it’s under new ownership by Amazon Music, according to Variety. Jen Sargent — who took over the company’s CEO role since Hernan Lopez stepped aside to focus on his foundation, and presumably to also deal with his legal situation — told the trade publication that the company ended last year with around eighty employees.
➽ Speaking of Amazon, Audible has hired Zola Mashariki as Head of Audible Studios, a role that oversees the development of all original content. Mashariki is a Hollywood veteran who has worked at Fox Searchlight and BET/Viacom. According to the press release, she’ll continue to be based in Los Angeles and will report to Rachel Ghiazza, EVP, Head of US Content.
➽ Also from Variety: “Serial Box Renames Itself Realm, Launches Free Podcast Strategy.” FYI, Realm (née Serial Box) was founded in 2015 as a destination app that focused on delivering audio fiction experiences that are broken out into short installments. Over the years, it has evolved to include programming based on existing entertainment properties, including various Marvel stuff, DC stuff, and Orphan Black, and the company has principally driven revenues through a mix of subscriptions, à la carte sales, and rights sold for distribution over audiobook channels. This shift in strategy, CEO Molly Barton tells me, comes as the company sees podcast monetization evolve to a point where they’re more comfortable putting their shows out for wider distribution. She didn’t disclose monthly active users or revenues when asked, but the press release notes that the company “has had 1.3 million listeners worldwide.” Realm has about 25 employees and has backing from Graham Holdings, Forerunner Ventures, and Boat Rocker Media.
➽ Some show notes: Comedian Tig Notaro and actress Cheryl Hines’ podcast, Tig & Cheryl: True Story, moves to ART19’s new original content division, called Misfit Toys. Meanwhile, reality star Bethenny Frankel signs a multi-year deal with iHeartMedia that will see her producing a new slate of shows for the company, plus bringing her self-titled podcast over to the network.
Last summer marked an exciting stretch for Teenager Therapy, the popular chatcast that serves as a platform for five high schoolers — Gael Aitor, Mark Hugo, Isaac Hurtado, Thomas Pham, and Kayla Suarez — to host open and candid conversations about teen mental health, the issues they face, and their lives. In July, the podcast became the subject of a New York Times profile, which led to a strong run of press that saw the group appearing on CNN, Good Morning America, and On Point, among other places. That bump in attention directly led to another high point: In October, the show featured a guest appearance by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, who invited the group to their Montecito home where they recorded an episode for World Mental Health Day.
The podcast has a fascinating backstory, which you can read up on in the Times piece, but equally interesting is the show as an entrepreneurial venture. There aren’t very many prominent podcasts entirely led by young people, and in a broader digital media universe that generally associates the “creator/influencer” archetype with the comparatively young operating with full agency (see: TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and so on), the fact that the Teenager Therapy crew has built out a following primarily in podcasting, which typically skews older on the creation side, makes them something of an anomaly.
Apple Podcasts gave Teenager Therapy the Spotlight program treatment last month, which I figured made for a good opportunity to reach out and learn more about the state of the show, the shape of the business, and what comes next for the production since its summer of press. To that end, I was able to jump on the phone last week with Gael Aitor, the show’s point person of sorts. As it turned out, the day we connected was also decision day for applicants to the University of Southern California. Aitor was among those eager to learn about admission results, though, as we made small talk, he noted that he was still weighing whether he wanted to go to college in the first place or stick around to work on the business.
Interestingly enough, that set the tone for our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hot Pod: I’ve gotten the impression that Teenager Therapy has been on a roll for the past year or so, or maybe just since the summer. How have things been?
Gael Aitor: Oh man, the past year has been wild. Summer 2020 was definitely our biggest period yet. Everything changed then, which is kind of funny, because there’s this theory that it takes about two years to know whether your business is going to fail or blow up. We were actually just about to hit two years at that point, and things started to happen.
People were writing about us. We were interviewed on CNN, the TODAY show, and Good Morning America. We were getting a bunch of offers for brand deals and stuff. It was a chaotic but fun period, and the amount of achievement we were doing each day was pretty remarkable. I think we picked up some traction after that, and we’ve just been trying to build on it. This was definitely the year where people began to take us seriously, when we went from a small unknown podcast into a show that’s leading the game in terms of teenage-produced podcasts.
HP: How big is the show nowadays?
Aitor: Right now, we have about 560,000 followers on Spotify. I’m not sure how much we have on other platforms. I think Spotify makes up about half [of the show’s audience]; the rest is Apple Podcasts and other platforms. On Instagram, we have around 50 to 51K, and we just got verified on Twitter today, which is pretty great.
Aitor: Thank you, thank you.
HP: Tell me about the brand deals that the show has been getting. How do you think through those kinds of things?
Aitor: So, the biggest move we’ve made in that regard is to work with Flighthouse. I don’t know if you’re familiar, but they’re the largest brand on TikTok; they have over 27 million followers on there. I interviewed Jacob Pace and Jake Trevino [Flighthouse CEO and Brand Director, respectively] in 2019, and they liked the show. We started talking afterwards and I was like, “maybe there’s an opportunity to partner here.” A few months later, we officially joined forces, and they’ve been helping us get the business side together. We’re more the creative side, and they’ve offered a lot of support and help bring deals to the table that we can choose whether we want to do or not.
So far, we’ve done deals with JanSport, Hollister, Depop, Headspace, a few others. Whenever we approach these kinds of deals, we’re very aware that we’re not the biggest podcast out there getting millions or hundreds of thousands of downloads, but what we do have in our favor is the fact that we’re basically one of the only consistently run teenage mental health podcasts in the world. That identity itself has been super helpful in getting brands to work with us, because I think a lot of brands want to help their target audience — usually younger customers, which is our demographic — with the issues they’re facing, and one of the biggest issues they’re facing is mental health.
And how do you help them? You speak to them directly. What a lot of these brands have been looking for is a good representative of that message. They come to us for that, because they know our audience trusts us and we have a good relationship with them.
HP: How do you typically approach working with brands?
Aitor: When we were a smaller podcast, I didn’t really know what we were doing. We definitely didn’t know our worth or how to sell ads. We just did the basic $20 COM midroll, pre-roll, or something like that. Nothing big. But recently, as we started picking up more steam, I felt like I really didn’t want to do those. I wanted to do more meaningful stuff, because if we’re going to work with a brand, we wanted to select those that care about our mission and share the same values as us. So we decided to stop doing midrolls and pre-rolls that were just basic and surface level. We started to fully commit to a brand that comes to us and we want to work with. We decided to do things with these brands that are really cool and can resonate with people, so it doesn’t just get lost in the middle of an episode.
With that approach, we’ve been doing more custom stuff. We’ve done fully customized episodes if a brand comes to us and says, “We want to talk about issues surrounding college and stress — how can we do that?” Then we’ll plan out an episode, select a topic, talk to different people, get our point of view, and then plug in the brand in a way that’s natural and organic. We also do stuff like livestreams and Instagram takeovers and giveaways, stuff to help our audience.
HP: How do you think about maintaining trust with your audience while doing these brand integrations? Do you have an ethics policy?
Aitor: We definitely want to work with brands that share the same values as us, because we understand we have that trust with our audience. That trust is very present to us, we notice it when we message with our listeners and they’re telling us about their depression. Because of that, we’re really selective. We can tell when a brand is just saying that they care about mental health just to look good, or if they’re actually putting in the work: doing donations, advocacy, stuff like that. So we try to only work with brands that actually carry the message forward. We’ve definitely been approached by companies that clearly have no genuine intent when it comes to helping our mission, and we’ve passed on those.
We try to stay in control of the script and avoid verbatim readings like, “Hey, we care about mental health and this brand does, too.” Some of the brands we’ve turned away were very much about sticking to a certain script, and we were like, “No, we prefer to do things our own way.” We know how to talk to our audience. Some brands try to use phrases they think are trendy with teens, and it just doesn’t sound like a teenager and more like a millennial thinks a teenager sounds like.
HP: Tell me about how you’re thinking about the future. Are you building out Teenager Therapy for the long run?
Aitor: Well, we’ve barely gotten started in terms of setting up a strategy for everything right now. We’re looking for more manpower to bring our vision to life. In the future, we’re hoping to turn Teenager Therapy into a lifelong business that surpasses even us, whether that means spinoff shows or passing down the podcast when we age out, like “Teenager Therapy Generation Two” or whatever it might be.
One thing that’s been exciting us is the idea of doing more lifestyle content. We have a lot of fun projects planned around that. We’re also looking forward to things like clothing. We’ve done three merch drops before, and those have done really well. It could be interesting to turn Teenager Therapy into a brand that you’d see at a place like Urban Outfitters. We’d just want to make really interesting products and clothes.
Apart from that, I’m also really excited to do more advocacy campaigns. We’re working on a campaign right now with a pretty big organization that’s going to target an issue that doesn’t get enough attention. Honestly, I just want to make as much noise as possible, get the attention of people, and use our platform to bring light to issues others aren’t really talking about.
HP: Are you in a position where you’d be comfortable to talk about the show’s revenue?
Aitor: You know, I’m not sure if I am. What I can say is that money is definitely something I want to talk about more, and on the show specifically. Because, honestly, it’s something people don’t talk about. So I’ll have to look into that.
But for now, I can say that once we started figuring out our worth and realizing that our weakness was that we’re not getting as many downloads as other people, but that we are one of the only ones in our space and our brand itself is worth a good amount, that’s when we started charging a very premium CPM for our episodes. A custom episode can run you five figures, easily, because that’s what we’re worth, and a lot of brands are willing to pay it because they understand the value of what we do.
HP: Is the entire business side of the show run through Flighthouse, or do you handle some stuff directly yourself?
Aitor: It’s always a group effort. They usually handle a good bit of it, since obviously I’m still new to this space and learning the ins and outs of business. I do my best to be as involved as possible in negotiations and deals, because this is something I’m really interested in. I love the business aspect of it. I give my input, and usually at the end, we collaboratively decide whether to take a partnership or whether it’s better just to leave it.
HP: How else have you been learning the ropes?
Aitor: Well, I’m very much a self-learner. I started a small dropshipping business when I was thirteen that grew into six figures in revenue. That experience taught me a lot about profit, handling money, and specifically marketing. I think marketing is one of my best skills, just learning how to get attention. That’s how I was able to grow the podcast to a couple thousand followers with zero ad budget.
Right now, the way I learn is just using Google a lot. Googling the right question is incredibly important. If there was a class I could teach in college, it would be that, because it unlocks so much knowledge, and learning how to learn is incredibly important.
I do a lot of stuff on Coursera, which offers a lot of free college courses. I recently finished something called an entrepreneurship specialization program by the Wharton Business School. It was free, it took me a few months, and I learned a lot about different business ideas, strategies, revenue models.
I also read a lot of business books, but the thing that has helped me learn the most is just experiencing it. Actually being a part of these deals and these conversations, and every time there’s a contract, I’ll look it over and try to figure out the terms that were made, how it helps the negotiations.
HP: Do you listen to podcasts a lot? What would you like to see more of in this space?
Aitor: Honestly, I don’t listen to podcasts as much. Actually, I go through phases. Some days, I’ll listen to a podcast every day, then I’ll stop for a bit and return to some of them. I’m not super immersed in the podcast world. I tend to pick up episodes here and there that I find interesting.
Overall, in this space, I really enjoy non-scripted shows, which there are a lot of. I think people really enjoy comfort. That’s something people get out of podcasts, and specifically, in the teenage podcast space, I just want to see more teenagers get into them. Right now, a lot of young people don’t even know what a podcast is, and I didn’t really know what a podcast was until like three years ago. It’s definitely something really new to a lot of people, but I know a lot of influencers who have been starting podcasts, and some of the biggest TikTokers have been starting podcasts themselves, and they’ve been pretty successful from what I’ve seen.
I would like to see more influencers, and also just, you know, more average young people starting podcasts and doing it consistently, because the more people of different backgrounds and cultures that we get sharing their voice, the greater the impact. Everyone gets to share their point of view, not just those at the top.
HP: Do you identify as an influencer?
Aitor: I wouldn’t say so. For a while, I thought I kinda wanted to be an influencer. But one day, and this was kind of odd, I was just brushing my teeth and had a sudden realization that I didn’t want to be one. I don’t think that world is something I’d enjoy. For me, it’s more about enjoying the business side of things, and specifically taking creative ideas and turning it into something. That’s a little more fun to me than the whole social media followers chase.
HP: Why don’t you think the influencer world is something you’d enjoy?
Aitor: It’s a lot of the superficial nature of it. I know a lot of influencers who have a certain group of friends on-camera that everyone thinks they’re close with, but then off-camera, they’re totally separate from them and actually have a genuine real group of friends. That’s something that bothers me, I think, just how inauthentic that can be. I don’t think that life is something I would enjoy to be around. I think it would drive me bonkers.
That’s probably the biggest thing. There’s not a lot of vulnerability. It’s very much about smiles, your best self, not talking about your flaws.
When Phoebe Keane started working on podcasts for the BBC, she anticipated the amount of work it would take — which is, by all accounts, a lot. As a broadcast reporter and audio producer based in the U.K., she saw her experience as in line with the principles of the prestigious national institution, which delivers news as well as an assortment of creative content, like this artistic reflection on lust. But the amount of labor that goes into these productions might not be all that apparent to the outside listener. Sometimes, it isn’t even apparent to the BBC itself.
To be clear: Keane’s not complaining. I had originally reached out to her because I wanted to understand more about non-true-crime audio documentaries, particularly how they’re planned and budgeted for. But as we talked, I found myself surprised not only by how much work she, alone, puts into one of the shows we were discussing, but also by how normal she made this amount of work seem. And so I felt compelled to ask her more about it.
In early 2019, Keane had been producing a standalone BBC segment about why opinions on climate change have become as politicized as they are. “In my research for making that one 20-minute program, I came across Naomi Oreskes’ work and realized there was so much more evidence there,” she says. “It was too complex, so I decided it needed to be made into a series.”
Keane willingly pursued a more comprehensive, longer-term project: what eventually became the ten-episode series How They Made Us Doubt Everything, which covers oil companies’ attempts to muddy public understanding of climate change, specifically as they relate to efforts to do the same thing for the causes of cancer, as employed by tobacco companies years earlier. “Lots of people have covered this before, Keane says, citing Los Angeles Times reporting in particular. But she believed that the BBC’s platform could widen the reach of previous coverage; further, addressing the subject in a serialized manner would permit a deeper dive.
The sheer amount of work this would require of Keane was apparent to her from the start, beginning with working on her original standalone piece, conducting the additional research that inspired, and developing a comprehensive pitch. A commissioning editor for BBC Radio 4 approved the proposal, but when Keane was given the green light, what she wasn’t given was a team.
“It’s just me — I’m the producer, and I did all the research,” she says. “I chose who we were going to interview, I chose the structure, and I wrote a brief.”
She auditioned hosts, ultimately choosing the journalist Peter Pomerantsev, and the larger production process, which took about four months in total, kicked off. Pomerantsev interviewed sources on tape by following Keane’s research, selection, and guidance, she says, and down the line, she was assisted by someone on a one-week stint to physically stitch together the audio, then a sound designer a bit later on. (Of the latter: “We had this really funny half hour where I was just making noises at him,” says Keane, who was trying to convey a sound she imagined for one particular moment in the show.) There was also a department editor who gave the final say on cuts, and given the particular complexity of the series’ topic, they occasionally did a play-through for some colleagues, but that was it.
“People will be shocked to hear it, but it really was just me and Peter,” says Keane.
To some podcast producers, this might sound perfectly normal. Whether or not that should sound normal is a different question — which I’ll get to shortly — but as I mentioned at the start, the particular context of this being a BBC project implied there would be even more layers of work. Let’s break down what that means.
“At the BBC, with our journalism,” Keane says, “accuracy is really important,” part of which has to do with honoring historical expectations: In a recent study conducted by Ofcom (short for the U.K.-government-adjacent Office of Communications), “[t]ime and again people reiterated the importance they place on the BBC as a universally-available and accessible source of accurate and trusted news.” The other part has to do with attracting future investment: The BBC is a public service broadcaster, but its content isn’t free; the government charges a “license fee” on its behalf, kind of like a tax, and if the BBC releases content that garners complaints, people might take issue with paying that fee, Keane says.
As such, talking to lawyers and company representatives, as when accessing files and gathering statements for How They Made Us Doubt Everything, can — and, some might say, should — take weeks. Though legal counsel could be accessed in house, the only real barrier that eliminated for, in this case, the show’s sole producer, was the cost of such services.
“There’s a lot of importance on the reputation of the BBC,” says Keane. When a mistake is made, it reflects on a lot of people. “It’s not just me, even though it is me doing all of the work.”
Keane is humble. She credits her ability to nearly single-handedly execute a show like How They Made Us Doubt Everything to the institutional support that working for the BBC has offered, as well as the practices she’s been exposed to through her radio background more broadly. But she’s also mastered the act of doing a dozen things in one job, a skill that’s often taken for granted by institutions and, as such, can inform the formation of production teams that are too small for folks to complete the work and keep their heads. The mountain of expectations for producers has been assimilated into the world of radio in which Keane was trained, as it’s already showing itself to be in the world of podcasting.
As I said, the amount of responsibility put on Keane as a podcast producer, and the versatility expected of her, isn’t unusual, but her embrace of — or at least preparedness for — it is what struck me, as it appears to illustrate how the demands of the modern producer, though they are tackled and managed by people of all stripes (however egregious those demands may be), might be best anticipated by people who’ve trained under rigorous news organizations.
While an awareness of certain industry practices is necessary for investigative documentary podcasts, I’d like to think that the accompanying overwork isn’t, whether for that genre or the many others in which producers find themselves overworked and under-resourced. Isn’t podcasting supposed to be for everyone? A given producer might not need to use legal counsel for the show they work on (and whether they can afford it is a whole other conversation), yet their plate may still be way, way overfilled. This can’t be said often enough — particularly because, even within industries that, for better or worse, condition producers to expect this, the target continues to move.
“Even within the BBC, we’ve had problems,” Keane says, at least over the past year. She estimates that recording remotely has added on five hours per guest, what with checking, setting up, and coaching them through the tech they’ll be using, amounting to “hours and hours and hours before even getting to the point where we’d begin in normal times.” And even then, as many producers would surely know, you still have to obtain the file, download it, convert it, etc.
Higher ups sometimes don’t understand these more recent holdups, says Keane, whose home internet, she says, is also pretty slow. That adds time and increases pressure to meet deadlines, which is already pressurized by the additional work.
And yet, the machine churns on.
“You don’t want to be the one who says this isn’t achievable with a deadline,” Keane says. “You don’t want to be the weak link.”