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The Importance of Owning Your Podcast & Audience Relationships

Jan 18, 2022
Jennifer Tribe

Wondering whether to sign a podcast deal or stay independent? There are at least four major questions you should be asking.

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Day after day, the story of another creator signing a content deal with a media company, network, or platform hits newsfeeds. 

The creator usually gets a hefty sum of money, high-level backing, and a built-in production team to make their show shine.

But what they trade to get those deals is often not covered in the news. Content ownership, creative control, choices around distribution, input into sponsors, a direct relationship with the audience—these are all up for negotiation and often signed away or heavily constrained.

For some podcasters, the tradeoffs are worth it. But as others are discovering, these deals are more limiting than they bargained for. 

If you’re wondering whether to pursue getting acquired or stay independent, there are at least four major questions you should be asking.

Who controls your distribution?

Over the last couple of years, Spotify has acquired a handful of podcast studios and production companies. At first, the distribution channels for all the acquired podcasts were left untouched. But over time, that changed

Motherhacker, for example, a Gimlet Media show, is still free to listen to but is now available only on Spotify. Other popular shows getting the same treatment include Serial Killers, Horoscope Today, and How to Save a Planet

Of course, the largest example of a platform-exclusive show is Joe Rogan. After Joe signed a $100 million deal with Spotify in 2020, his entire back catalog was taken down from Apple, YouTube, and every other platform—except Spotify. SiriusXM has a similar exclusive with Howard Stern.

These walled content gardens are great for Spotify and SiriusXM, but does exclusivity benefit the podcasters? 

According to research from Ashley Carman in The Verge, the answer is no. Joe Rogan’s reach and influence appear to have declined since signing the deal with Spotify. If that’s what single-platform distribution can do to one of the biggest podcasters in the world, imagine the impact on smaller shows. 

In a December edition of the Hot Pod newsletter, Carman predicted a shift away from exclusive deals as podcasters realize what they’re trading away:  “Spotify popularized the idea of shows going exclusive to one platform, but looking ahead, I foresee this trend fading out. … I also expect more Spotify-exclusive deals will not re-sign.”

Who owns your content?

Another Round was a successful podcast, produced by Buzzfeed, that ran between 2015 and 2017. After Buzzfeed decided to cancel the show, co-hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton were given permission to continue using the name in producing new episodes, but had no rights to their back catalogue of 113 episodes.

Brittany Luse, co-host of For Colored Nerds and The Nod, spoke out last  year about creators forfeiting ownership to media companies. In a Twitter thread, Brittany outlined how the media ownership model is one reason the podcast industry lacks diversity.

Brittany Luse Twitter thread - The Nod podcast ownership

Brittany and co-host Eric Eddings left Gimlet and Spotify in August to relaunch For Colored Nerds with Stitcher, owned by SiriusXM. Notably, however, the duo made sure to “retain total control over their show” including the audio masters, feed, and rights to derivative works.

Speaking of rights to derivative works, this is something you’ll want to explore. Are you allowed to spin your podcast into a movie or graphic novel, and if so, who owns that new work? 

Similarly, if your deal partner earns revenue from advertising placed on your show, for example, are you allowed to build alternate revenue streams? Are you required to split those streams with them?

Who decides what sponsors your show takes on?

As a podcaster, your audience and their trust in you is everything. You likely take great pains to avoid sponsors that are antithetical to the mission of your show, or that just aren’t a good fit in terms of audience interest. 

But if you’re signed to a deal, will you have the power to say no to advertisers you don’t want? Reply All, another Gimlet Media show acquired by Spotify, didn’t—and it didn’t go well for them.

Ashley Carman predicts we’ll see more and more “strange brand / content pair-ups”—and the fallout from listeners they create—as more indie shows go corporate and “cede control over their advertisers to bigger and hungrier sales teams.”

Who decides what you get to say?

What if you don’t want to take on sponsors at all? Editorial pressure can feel all too real when ad dollars from big companies are flowing into your pockets. 

Sam Harris of Making Sense with Sam Harris talks about this pressure, and why he chose not to accept ads on his show. “I don't want to have to think twice about whether something I think is important to say might upset a sponsor,” he explains in this 2018 video.

Platforms can also exert editorial pressure with their ability to turn monetization or distribution on or off depending on the topic. 

The Breaking Points podcast recently detailed how YouTube demonetizes certain videos, making creators choose between reporting on contentious topics and making a living.

Using the example of a report about Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, Breaking Points co-host Saagar Enjeti underscores how his show’s direct subscription model with listeners is crucial to being able to talk freely about the news, since he’s no longer dependent on YouTube monetization.

Your podcast, your choice

Signing a media deal can be a fantastic move for your podcast. Just make sure you go into any negotiations with your eyes open and ask for the things that are important to you. 

Misha Euceph, host of Tell Them, I Am, offers this handy guide to negotiating podcast ownership rights. 

And remember, staying independent is also a viable choice that doesn’t prevent you from achieving massive success. Just look at podcasters Sam Harris, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Saagar Enjeti, and Peter Attia, who all run profitable listener-supported shows.

The bottom line: It’s your podcast so whatever you do with it should be your choice.