Slate’s Political Gabfest
by Simon Owens
Usually when two corporate entities enter into some kind of partnership you can be certain a small army of lawyers is involved in the process, each side guaranteeing that no ambiguity exists as to who owes what deliverables and share in costs. Not so with Crossing the Streams, the new pop culture podcast launched earlier this year as a collaboration between film news site Moviepilot and the humor magazine Cracked. Alisha Grauso, Moviepilot’s editor-in-chief, first met the Cracked team when she was attending Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo in the fall. “Their PR guy reached out and said, ‘Hey, we heard you’re going to be at Comikaze. You have a great site and it overlaps with what we do, and we should talk because we have ideas for things we could collaborate on.’”
Grauso met with Jack O’Brien, Cracked’s editor-in-chief, and Daniel O’Brien, one of the magazine’s lead writers, and though the group discussed a variety of projects, they quickly settled on teaming up for a podcast. There isn’t 100 percent overlap in their coverage — Moviepilot focuses mostly on film and television, and while Cracked does cover pop culture, it’s usually through an idiosyncratic, humorous lens — but both are deeply rooted in geek culture, so Crossing the Streams would cover topics ranging from film to television to comic books, but from an insider’s point of view. “Jack doesn’t necessarily have a movie background, but he has a broad pop culture background,” she said. “I come from movies, but can talk about other areas as well.” Together, they could use their clout and connections to invite Hollywood insiders onto the show. An episode released in March, for instance, featured a panel discussion that included Alonso Duralde of The Wrap and Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg where the four conversed on the history of the Oscars and why the ceremony is currently broken.
Why did Moviepilot choose to team up with Cracked rather than just going it alone? To understand Grauso’s decision, it’s helpful to consider Moviepilot’s history and its relatively recent entry into the U.S. market. It was founded in the mid 2000s when three German entrepreneurs got together and formed a production company. After producing a few movies, they concluded they could better promote their films if they had an online community to market to — thus Moviepilot.de was born. “Then after a few years they realized they could only grow so big within the German market,” said Grauso. “German movies are great and popular in Germany, but only in Germany.” So in 2012, the company launched a sister website in the U.S.
In just three years, the site’s audience has grown tremendously. It pulls in 35 million unique visitors who generate over 80 million pageviews a month. But given its newness to the U.S. market, it doesn’t yet have strong brand recognition compared to some of its older peers. Cracked, on the other hand, not only has a large audience but has also been around for a decade; this has allowed it to amass a much more devout following. “For us it’s a win-win,” she said. “We don’t make money off it, but it’s a form of branding, getting our name out to a new audience. It’s ‘Hey, we’re working with Cracked, you know Cracked!’ It’s about name recognition.”
Moviepilot isn’t the only publication to have realized the benefits of teaming up with a competing outlet to launch a podcast. Because podcasting is a nascent medium with a growing-but-still-latent user base, news organizations and media personalities are finding they can attract a following much more quickly if they combine resources and work together to drive listenership. In some cases this involves informal collaborations, like when comedians sit down for guest interviews on each other’s shows, but other media entities are entering into official partnerships. The New Yorker and and the public radio station WNYC, for example, inked a deal earlier this year to create a one-hour podcast and national radio show.
Perhaps no podcast collaboration is larger than the one rolled out by Slate in February. As I’ve documented previously, Slate has a 10-year history growing a popular podcast network, one that boasts a legion of fervid fans. With shows ranging from its Better Call Saul recaps to the Political Gabfest, the online magazine has amassed millions of listeners and secured sponsorships with well-known brand advertisers. But the February announcement — that it was rebranding its podcast network under the name Panoply — indicated that it has much higher ambitions than simply hosting shows featuring Slate journalists. In addition to its current stable of podcasts, the network has entered partnerships with over a dozen other publications, including Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Inc, and Popular Science.
Andy Bowers, Panoply’s executive producer who’s been involved with Slate’s podcast network since the very beginning, told me that the magazine realized within the last year that it had spent a decade building the infrastructure and knowledge to maintain a podcast network and that other publications, many of which have dipped their toes into podcasting but haven’t fully committed, could benefit from that knowledge and support. “Of course they could do it on their own, and some have done it on their own,” said Bowers. “But we figured that the case would be a lot easier to take to their higher ups if they said, ‘We can just go and let Slate do it for us.’”
There are a number of services Panoply offers to its media partners, many of which position it as more of a behind-the-scenes production company, one that handles most of the technical aspects of podcasting while the publications supply the talent. Most of the media partners are based in New York, which allows them to visit the Slate offices and use its recording studio. There are about six full-time staff members on Panoply’s production side along with a number of freelancers; this core team helps the partners with everything from recording the podcast to editing and remixing it. Moviepilot experienced similar benefits when teaming up with Cracked. “They work with Earwolf Studios,” said Grauso, referring to the podcast network that produces shows for major comedians. “We go to a studio where we have mics and we can all see each other. There’s an audio engineer listening the whole time who’s adjusting volume, adjusting mics, and then they have an engineer who cuts it all together. It’s pretty high tech and they handle all of it.”
In addition to its production services, Panoply also handles much of the ad placement for the network. Not only does it have access to the direct response advertisers that are currently found on most podcasts (Audible, Squarespace, Dollar Shave Club), but it has also built inroads with the lucrative brand sponsors that have so far eluded the podcasting medium. “We leave it open for each organization to bring their own ad sales to the podcast if they want,” said Bowers. “Some have taken us up on it, but most are relying on us” to sell ads. In all cases the media partner has full ownership of the podcast and Panoply takes a portion of the ad revenue it sells.
Of course one of the biggest benefits the Panoply network offers is the ability to attract a large audience very quickly. As I and others have pointed out, podcast discovery includes a lot more friction compared to other mediums and often relies more on old-fashioned word of mouth. You’re unlikely to see podcasts shared on Facebook with the same frequency as images, text, or video, and it’s generally accepted that the best way to promote a new podcast is to have it plugged on a much more popular podcast. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite common, when you’re listening to a Panoply podcast, to hear a promo for another Panoply podcast. “Think of it as a newsstand,” said Bowers. “If a newsstand only carried one publication, would you be likely to go there? Probably not. But you go to a newsstand looking for one or two things, and there’s a bunch of other things there too, and you’re likely to peruse those things and maybe even buy them.” It’s a “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy.
Perhaps one reason these publications have been so amenable to collaboration is that podcasting, despite being on the upswing, is still far from mainstream adoption, at least the kind of mainstream adoption enjoyed by its sister medium, radio. It’s easy to team up when there isn’t much money on the table (a recent analysis from FiveThirtyEight found that a third of the top 100 podcasts didn’t even have a single ad). Once it enters the zeitgeist — and many of its proponents think it eventually will — then these partnerships might become more corporatized and structured. For now, most of its practitioners are looking to have some fun, and any other benefit, whether it’s increased branding or a little extra money, is a welcome addition. When I spoke to Grauso, she didn’t seem too concerned with whether the Crossing the Streams podcast would ever produce significant revenue.
“If we get to that point, then that’s awesome. But it’s not something we’re really thinking about at the moment.”
Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC.