Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings worked hard to bring their Black culture podcast, The Nod, to life in 2017. While working full-time as employees on other programs for Gimlet Media as well as on an independent podcast called For Colored Nerds, Luse and Eddings brainstormed The Nod’s concept, recorded and edited a sample 20-minute episode along with a 10-minute segment and a trailer, and then pitched the show to the higher-ups at Gimlet Media, a podcasting network that has since been acquired by Spotify. They eventually got the green light and began releasing an episode a week for nearly three years. On their show, they shared their thoughts about culture and events, and in Luse and Eddings’ eyes, they made The Nod, not Gimlet or Spotify.
“Our show is the way we, Brittany and I, see the world,” Eddings tells me. “We call ourselves Blackness’ biggest fans. We don’t call ourselves, necessarily, experts. We feel like we have a unique way of looking at things, and our show is our exploration of that.”
But when Eddings and Luse thought about expanding The Nod’s universe beyond podcasts, they ran into a problem: Spotify owns all of the rights to the brand, meaning if they wanted to shop The Nod name around for a book deal, movie deal, or any other use of its name, they’d need Spotify’s permission.
“At the end of the day, investing in someone’s talent isn’t the same as having the talent yourself,” Luse tells The Verge. “It’s very strange that [Spotify and Gimlet] are the only people who can claim ownership over [The Nod and its segments].”
That show bears our faces. It’s about the unique lens through which Eric and I see the world. It’s critically acclaimed, beloved, and more relevant than ever. It’s derivative of a show we created before we’d even heard of Gimlet. Do we not deserve to own even a fraction of it?
— Brittany Luse (@bmluse) June 18, 2020
Luse and Eddings are only two of the podcasters who have begun speaking out about the constraints of their podcasting contracts, which were written before they hosted successful shows. Misha Euceph tweeted about lacking control over her show covering Muslims’ lives in the US, which is owned by Southern California’s KPCC. Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, the hosts of BuzzFeed’s now-canceled Another Round, also recently tweeted their desire to own their podcast’s back catalog, aka their RSS feed, which not only contains their show’s former episodes but also gives them the ability to publish new ones to existing subscribers.
“BuzzFeed could easily curry some favor from me (and I imagine others) by granting me and [Clayton] the rights to the [Another Round] back catalog, a thing that is free and is easy to do,” Nigatu wrote. Under the hashtag #FreeAnotherRound, former and current BuzzFeed staff tweeted in support along with other media figures — even Lin-Manuel Miranda joined in.
These hosts don’t own their shows because they created and hosted the series while employed by a media company that paid their salaries. But the intimate format of podcasts can make that corporate control contentious. Listeners and hosts feel connected, and fans want to see shows continue even after a network cancels them, as in the case of Another Round. That’s why control over a podcast’s back catalog, or RSS feed, has become a focal point for hosts. Once they leave a network or their show ends, the podcast networks have free rein to pivot their feed, insert new ads, or even relaunch a show with a new host.
“The podcast feed is the thing, like, it is the keys to the kingdom,” says Amanda McLoughlin, CEO of Multitude Studios, a podcast collective and production company. “It is the only way that you connect with 100 percent of your audience. People can have social media personally that listeners go ahead and follow, future projects mailing lists, but your audience is totally and utterly composed of the subscribers to your RSS feed.”
And while we’re sharing our experiences, I don’t own a single percent of Tell Them, I Am. It’s a podcast largely based on my story. I pitched it in my first week as an employee at KPCC. I was 24, didn’t know anything about IP or representatives.
— Misha Euceph (@meuceph) June 18, 2020
This means that if hosts want to tell their listeners about a new project, the single best way to do so would be through audio published on their already established feed. Access is crucial. But companies have reasons to not want to fork over control of a show they funded and aren’t obligated to give up: they can reuse that feed to kickstart a new show, launching with an audience that’s built on the work of the former hosts. On top of marketing potential, companies can also continue making money off RSS feeds, even after shows end, because of dynamic advertising, which lets them insert ads into old shows that might gain listens.
“That’s what people are talking about. The fact that even though I have left and you’re no longer paying me a salary, you continue to make money on the work that I did for you, and I am left with nothing,” McLoughlin says. “I can’t talk to my audience. I can’t make money on that work.”
What makes the podcasting environment especially fraught is that not all creators are treated equally. Other Gimlet Media employees worked out co-ownership deals, for example, Luse says. At BuzzFeed, Ahmed Ali Akbar, the host of See Something Say Something, says he didn’t pay for the transfer of his RSS feed when he went independent and started supporting himself off Patreon. A BuzzFeed spokesperson says the company still puts ads into his show, but that Akbar could take the podcast to another network if he wanted. Akbar tells me the decision was made by executive leadership at BuzzFeed News. (He didn’t reply about whether this was unique to his contract and written and agreed upon ahead of time.)
its true! i was given access to the @seesomething catalog and podcast feed when i left in 2019. @peretti should do the same for @anotherround, @brokeymcpoverty, & @heavenrants. https://t.co/RoOhDkSFly
— ahmed ali akbar (@radbrowndads) June 17, 2020
It’s often big names with the leverage and the power to negotiate who are able to avoid restrictive contracts. Joe Rogan, for example, is licensing his show and feed to Spotify exclusively and will share in the ad revenue. Kim Kardashian West also isn’t giving Spotify full ownership of her show.
But other, smaller podcasters have had to start over when they leave a big network but want to keep their show alive. Failing Upwards, for example, a former Barstool Sports podcast, had to rebrand as Throwing Fits in January after its hosts left the network. The show started a new feed from scratch and had to regain its audience under a new name. It’s now funded through Patreon.
Hosts often have little negotiating power when starting a show, especially when they’re already working at a media company and don’t yet have an audience. These deals offer hosts some real advantages — for one, networks front production costs and provide a structure for shows to sell ads and market themselves, while independent hosts have to do that all on their own. Plus, networks give hosts a steady salary, health care, and a team of producers and editors to help them bring their vision to life. Luse and Eddings say Gimlet allowed them to make the show they wanted full-time, which they especially valued during a time when they both wanted and needed a consistent income after making their independent show for years.
A network offers resources in exchange for IP
Eddings says the benefits of a network could outweigh the loss of their name and catalog, but only if the ownership rules were consistently applied — not selectively given to people who have the name recognition or resources to negotiate their own deals. Luse and Eddings say that being Black likely factored into their negotiations, whether unconsciously or not on Gimlet’s part.
“Who could have known that when we were structuring these very one-sided deals five, six, seven years ago that there would be so many more lucrative opportunities to explore new platforms using original podcasting content,” Luse says. “Or who would know that a company like Spotify or someone like Kim Kardashian would be interested in figuring out how to monetize their content through a platform such as podcasting?”
Spotify declined to comment.
Podcast contracts, like Luse and Eddings’, are structured similarly to past music contracts, points out writer Cherie Hu in a piece first published in the Hot Pod newsletter. Networks own the IP and entire catalog of episodes indefinitely, like labels often do with albums. Unlike podcasters, however, even musicians locked out of their own content are allowed to tour under their name, release merch, and put out derivative works.
“In contrast,” Hu wrote, “many modern podcasting and digital-media contracts appear to seek to buy out all of a producer’s intellectual property, encompassing the original deliverable and all resulting derivative works.”
This means that podcasters like Eddings and Luse not only have to ask for permission to publish new podcast episodes, but they also need Spotify’s blessing to sell anything else with The Nod name and likely give the company a cut in exchange. Currently, The Nod podcast is on pause while the team works on a video version of the show for Quibi. Gimlet negotiated that deal, and Luse and Eddings are executive producers on the show and no longer Spotify employees.
The same goes for Euceph, who worked at KPCC and didn’t own her show. “Like many other studios, SCPR owns the rights to the content we produce,” says Herb Scannell, president and CEO of Southern California Public Radio, to The Verge. “But we are also actively having conversations with Misha about the future of the show and evaluating our creator engagement models.”
Both Euceph and The Nod’s treatment is standard across companies; most networks retain control over the shows they pilot. BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said as much in a tweet reply to Another Round host Nigatu.
“Investing in content and transferring the IP free of charge is not a small thing,” he tweeted. “It never happens.”
In a leaked Slack chat and in that tweet, Peretti said he offered the Another Round IP, or its name, to the hosts for free, but wouldn’t give them access to their RSS feed without charging. He suggests the hosts could license their feed.
Funnily enough, @peretti appears to think that the literal bare minimum support given Another Round was above and beyond. And maybe it was, but that should be embarrassing in and of itself, because it was bullshit. I know this because I was told to stop pitching podcast ads. https://t.co/S1vE1Y3uOk pic.twitter.com/AQAdMnjhZk
— kaye toal, ghost rights activist (@ohkayewhatever) June 17, 2020
“Yes, you giving us the show to take somewhere else was an unprecedented move, but that is not a reflection of your goodness, kindness, or love of the show,” Clayton tweeted in response. “It’s a reflection of the sad state of media and how it uses Black content creators every day.”
Peretti responded, ultimately saying his lawyers and the hosts’ could talk and try to come to an agreement, likely one that would involve Nigatu and Clayton paying for access to their show. A spokesperson says the company is offering Nigatu and Clayton an agreement similar to the one See Something Say Something has. Nigatu and Clayton didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Although most podcast contracts are restrictive, some networks are trying to upend the system. Juleyka Lantigua Williams, the CEO and founder of the Lantigua Williams & Co. network, says she shares all IP and ownership rights with creators, listing both their names on trademark requests. She fronts the cost of production to start, but once the show makes enough money to pay her back, she shares the revenue, whether it comes from ads or a movie deal, with the show creators. If they ever wanted to take their show outside the network, they’d have to pay her back for the upfront costs, which would then give them ownership of their feed. She says the most valuable part of these podcasts is to iterate beyond them across forms and platforms. Sharing revenue incentivizes creators to aim high.
“Because that is the most important thing, I always want to find collaborators who also think about their ideas in multiple ways and in multiple platforms,” she says. “And so doing a contract that pleases them and their creativity is basically the way that you create really fertile soil for ideas and innovation because who doesn’t want to be supported in their growth? Who doesn’t want to be encouraged to dream really big?”
For companies that don’t work these deals out from the start, creators have turned to unions for more of a voice. Gimlet Media’s union, however, is still in negotiations with Spotify, and BuzzFeed News’ union hasn’t ratified a contract with BuzzFeed, either, though both are seeking some control over employees’ creative works. Luse notes that, right now, most podcast networks essentially own hosts’ faces, voices, ideas, thoughts, opinions, and writing indefinitely.
“The point is that that day has come,” Luse says. “We’re here, and we’re really and truly past the point where we can continue as an industry to present creators with deals like this, it’s not ethical. It’s not fair.”