Podcast Movement's Identity Crisis
What Happens Now?
Hello, dear reader!
Before we jump into today’s story, a few brief housekeeping items:
Related to my first reported issue of The Squeeze: Thanks to the reader who sent me a piece from Stanford University titled “The Price of Commercial Success,” which details Minnesota Public Radio’s financial history, starting in the late 1960s. According to the article, the station was an early mover in successfully leveraging “the application of the traditional principles of capitalism…to a nonprofit organization [to] benefit the public sector,” but was widely criticized for it at the time. One has to wonder whether that criticism is in part to blame for MPR’s recent shuttering of its flagship show, In the Dark.
Paul Holes, one-half of the hosting team behind Exactly Right’s now-canceled show Murder Squad, which I wrote about in a previous issue, was recently featured on Fresh Air. The scandal surrounding his former co-host was not mentioned.
I’m moderating two panels at the (virtual) Multitude Podcasting Conference on September 9th: “What Your Hosts For Hire Want You to Know” featuring Tracy Clayton and Nichole Perkins and “Stuff No One Tells You About Running a Podcast Company” featuring Anthony Frasier, Jenny Radelet Mast, and Laura Mayer, who I interviewed for this newsletter two weeks ago. Register for the event here. (There is a pay-what-you-can option.)
I will be participating in another virtual event, “Opening Doors: The Path to Podcasting for Marginalized Genders,” moderated by Elsie Escobar on September 9th at 3pm EST. Join me by registering for free here!
Alright, let’s get into it —
As many of you probably know, a surprise appearance at Podcast Movement by Ben Shapiro, the conservative (and some would say, racist, homophobic, and transphobic) founder of right-wing media outfit The Daily Wire, upended the seemingly smooth vibe at the industry’s biggest annual event last week. (As an aside, this mess has probably also made Shapiro richer than he was a week ago, sigh.)
Last Friday, I scheduled an interview with Podcast Movement co-founder and president Dan Franks for yesterday morning. I expected — and I believe he did, too — that we would discuss his company’s position on whether or not controversial networks such as The Daily Wire would be welcomed as sponsors of the show going forward. No dice. “Sorry,” Franks said to me on the phone yesterday. “We’re working on it, but rather than move too quickly, we want to come out with something comprehensive and thoughtful.”
It may be that the delay stems from a fundamental difference of opinion at the top of the Podcast Movement organization. While Franks felt it necessary to apologize for Shapiro’s interruption during the event, in two now-deleted tweets, his co-founder Jared Easley publicly agreed with others on Twitter who characterized the apology as “an embarrassment” and “despicable behavior.” (Many thanks to the source who took pictures of those tweets and delivered them to my DMs.)
So where does Podcast Movement go from here? Without my Dan Franks interview, it’s hard to say. In place of that, let’s take a brief look at what transpired last week and chase that down with some opinions and insights, shall we?
Moments after this now-ubiquitous photo of Ben Shapiro appeared on Twitter I reached out to Franks, who told me that Shapiro had entered the event from an area where Podcast Movement is “not allowed to monitor for badges…he showed up in a common area of the event space, unregistered, unbadged and no talent [from The Daily Wire] was scheduled to be present at the event.”
The outrage on Podcast Twitter was swift: people at the event — as well as some who were simply witnessing it go down online — expressed shock, disappointment, and even trauma as a result of seeing the right-wing host at the show.
The next day, Podcast Movement’s official Twitter handle posted a now-infamous four-part apology tweet, in which the organization stated that it was taking “full responsibility for the harm done by [Shapiro’s] presence” and that “those of you who called this ‘unacceptable’ are right.” The organization also expressed regret for having sold The Daily Wire a booth in the first place.
While many appeared to appreciate the sentiment, it played right into Shapiro’s lib-owning hands; The Daily Wire promptly released a video lampooning the situation and later, Shapiro featured the tweets in an episode of his podcast titled “I Am Darth Vader.” (After hate-reading the apology tweets aloud, Shapiro ranted, “If you want parallel [podcast conference] universes, you’re gonna get it — right in the face.”)
In the wake of all this, I let Franks know that I’d like to interview him whenever the dust settled. I wasn’t in a rush, though. After all, dear reader, I had a whole different story planned for today’s issue of The Squeeze. I was content to wait on this one.
Then along came Jared.
There he was, in my Friday morning DMs, agreeing with his company’s detractors, turning this mess into a zero sum game — because the phrase “you are right” doesn’t leave much wiggle room, does it? You either believe “inclusive” means everybody is welcome — even those who espouse hateful rhetoric, OR you believe “inclusive” can’t in good faith be applied to those who aren’t inclusive themselves.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. We’re living in polarized times! A fact that has been reflected by the variety of responses I’ve seen from people across this industry. For example, here’s a recent note podcast executive AJ Archibald authorized me to share publicly:
I find the apology for including the daily wire and Ben Shapiro to participate in the largest podcast conference in the country abhorrent. As an African American man in this country, the idea that we are curbing free speech that we don’t agree with and reducing the opportunity to engage in an exchange of ideas even conflicting ones is a sad commentary on the state of intellectual discourse in this country. Freedom of speech and the protection of that speech is as important in 2022 as it was in 1963. If there is anyplace in particular that should have known that, it would be Podcast Movement.
Compare Archibald’s comments to what podcast producer Tal Minear wrote in their blog post titled “And I’d Do It Again”:
There's this story about a Nazi bar. The first people who come are friendly and kind. They don't raise a ruckus. They're paying customers. You let them in because they seem polite. They bring their friends. Who bring their friends. You look around, and suddenly, this is a Nazi bar…Do you follow the allegory? A podcast movement full of Shapiro fans is not a convention I'd feel safe at. Emphasis on FANS. Many people on Twitter have shared that they think I could win a physical altercation with Shapiro, and I don't doubt it. I didn't feel unsafe because of his measly frame. I felt unsafe because I knew who would follow him here.
Meanwhile, some within the podcast community are starting to make demands of the show’s organizers. In a personal blog post titled Too Little Too Late, Podcast Movement, Hug House Productions co-founder Wil Williams wrote :
I want Podcast Movement to develop statements and policies regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. I want them to hire full-time DEI employees who are not contractors, and who get paid adequately and fairly for their work. I want them to develop standards for whose money they take and whose they reject. I want them to donate the money received from The Daily Wire directly to the attendees who were impacted by this clusterfuck, as well as Texas organizations for oppressed populations: abortion funds, organizations dedicated to queer liberation, organizations dedicated to racial justice.
So what’s the answer here?
Last weekend, I spoke with a C-level executive with over three decades of experience orchestrating conferences in nearly every vertical you can imagine. (I’m keeping his name confidential, as he didn’t go through the proper PR channels to speak with me.) I wanted to know if creating policies regarding who can speak at or sponsor an event was common practice in the conference industry. “There aren’t a whole lot of rules,” he told me. “The policies that do exist usually center around relevancy, rather than political ideology or belief systems. That said, organizers are at liberty to create an event for an entire community, or for certain segments of that community, but whatever they decide, they have to own it.”
This would not be the first time Podcast Movement has had to make adjustments. According to She Podcasts co-founder Jessica Kupferman, the show has been a work in progress since its very earliest days. “The first year [at Podcast Movement], it was a lot of dudes, mostly white,” she told me earlier this week. “The second year, people asked them to diversify it a little more, the third year we said you need more women. Every year they’ve made progress, but it’s still very ‘bro culture.’ Maybe they’re at a point now where they'll have to decide — who is this show for and who is it not for?”
In a blog post Kupferman posted yesterday, she revealed that she and co-founder Elsie Escobar created the She Podcasts LIVE conference for women and non-binary podcasters in response to the male-dominated, “dude-bro” culture of other events including Podcast Movement. She wrote:
That underlying aggression is the first reason why we started She Podcasts LIVE. People started asking for it, and I was already daydreaming about floral stages, glitter, and T-shirts with inspirational sayings…Elsie Escobar and myself had curated a group of people in a Facebook group that didn't judge each other. They didn't snipe at each other. They didn't make fun of each other, or make snide comments. They were supportive, helpful, accepting, open, honest, and frankly, delightful.
Back on the phone with my C-level bigwig, I asked if he had any final advice for Franks and his team. “They need to be asking themselves who is our community? Who do we want to bring together? As organizers, that’s their job.”
So Podcast Movement, who is your community?
We’ll soon find out.
That’s it for me this week! See you next Thursday.