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WNYC Part II: What Has Chief Content Officer Andrew Golis Accomplished?
Can Someone Please Forward This to Lafontaine Oliver
Here’s what I’ve got for you today:
RIP Gimlet and Parcast;
Let’s talk about Andrew Golis’s $140,000 raise;
WNYC Studios: What Has Chief Content Officer Andrew Golis Accomplished? (This is part two in a series; part one is here.)
I’m heartbroken over the news that Spotify has laid off another 200 podcast employees, though I’m not shocked. Last October, in a piece I titled An Oral History of Gimlet’s Slow Demise, it was clear that employees were already sensing the future. As one staffer told me, “I feel like Spotify just doesn’t want to deal with us anymore. They’re probably like, “why do we own this company?”
This past February, I published a follow-up piece titled Daniel Ek Got Carried Away in which I wrote that:
Widespread fears over a global recession has given the mistakes of Daniel Ek and his team some amount of cover, but make no mistake, what we’re seeing at Spotify is a result of the irrational exuberance and grave mistakes of a powerful few.
Semafor’s media reporter Max Tani characterized the situation similarly, writing that “Spotify was a one-company podcast bubble.” With this week’s news, it seems that bubble has fully deflated.
As a former publicist, it’s been fascinating/depressing to see how Spotify has positioned the news. A memo announcing the cuts to employees (and posted publicly) kicks off with seven self-congratulatory bullet points, followed by two and a half paragraphs explaining a “next phase” in which the company will deliver “even more value for creators (and users!)" After reading the memo, you could almost come away thinking that the layoffs — which aren’t mentioned until halfway down the page — are evidence of Spotify’s sharp business acumen rather than the reckless actions of a rapacious leader. Just a few short months after Ek admitted that his spending on podcast companies “got a little carried away,” the company’s apologetic stance has vanished, a rose-colored memo in its place.
Despite the announcement’s overwrought PR gymnastics, I was happy to read that laid off employees will receive “generous severance packages” and “immediate access to outplacement support.” If anyone would like to fill me in on the details, I’m all ears.
Let’s talk about Andrew Golis’s $140,000 raise
In part one of my series on WNYC, I mentioned that Golis was paid a total of $384,468 ($349,235 salary, plus a bonus of $35,233) for his first 11 months on the job and that, according to the most recent tax filings, he was now making over half a million dollars per year. What I failed to clarify however, is that his half a million dollar paycheck — $524,641 to be exact — was what he made his second year on the job.
In 2019, Andrew Golis was paid a salary of $349,235 and a bonus of $35,233. That’s a total of $349,235.
In 2020 Andrew Golis was paid a salary of $476,021 and a bonus of $48,620. That’s a total of $524,641.
Which means that:
Andrew Golis was paid 36% more in 2020 than he was paid in 2019.
Or put another way, Andrew Golis was paid $140,173 more in 2020 than he was paid in 2019.
No one seems to know.
I asked the New York Public Radio communications team; they declined to comment on an employee’s salary.
I reached out repeatedly to Goli Sheikholeslami, NYPR’s CEO during 2020; no response.
I asked staffers who were at NYPR during the relevant timeframe; no dice.
I spoke with a senior level staffer with direct knowledge of executive pay at New York Public Radio; they couldn’t explain it either (though, they did help nix a theory that the increase had been written into Golis’s first year contract).
I combed through tax filings from other public media stations in major radio markets to see if the raise was reflective of a broader trend within the industry; not only did I find nothing to support the idea, but in at least two cases, CCO salaries had decreased during the same time period. (Let’s not forget that this was the first year of the pandemic, a time in which some organizations chose to tighten their belts, instead of loosening them.)
I even spoke to handful of industry experts and journalists, who didn’t have answers but suggested I look for clues by taking a deep dive into what Golis had accomplished; maybe I’d find the answer there? Which brings me to part two of our series —
WNYC Studios: What Has Chief Content Officer Andrew Golis Accomplished?
I work at WNYC, where I collaborate with journalists I admire to serve our extended New York community and anyone who wants to listen to stories that try to make the world a little smarter, a little more just, and a little more curious.
— Andrew Golis’s website
In 2021, Andrew Golis caught wind that the two reporters behind WNYC’s Trump Inc., Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein, were producing Will Be Wild, a podcast about the January 6th insurrection, with Pineapple Street Studios. According to multiple sources, in meetings with Pineapple Street Studios/Audacy (Entercom, now Audacy, Inc., acquired PSS in August of 2021), Golis claimed that the show’s IP had been developed, at least in part, at WNYC Studios. After a negotiation that lasted almost half a year, the two entities agreed to settle the matter for $5,000.
New York Public Radio PR reps didn’t initially respond to a request for comment on this piece of reporting, but less than 48 hours after publishing my request in this newsletter last week, I received a reply. “False,” wrote NYPR’s VP of Communications Jennifer Houlihan Roussel. “NYPR and Audacy had a discussion regarding IP produced under the auspices of WNYC Studios. There wasn't a ‘case’, and no legal action was threatened or taken.”
Regardless of the legal semantics, a contract between the two entities was drawn up as a result of an IP dispute over the show. That contract specified that Audacy would pay NYPR $5,000 within ten days of the contract’s effective date, NYPR would be given marketing inventory worth up to $10,000 on Audacy podcasts, and Will be Wild would include a reference to Trump Inc. and WYNC Studios in a promotional capacity.
I reached back out to Houlihan to ask whether NYPR was claiming that “the paperwork, which signified a settlement between the two parties, ever existed.”
“No,” she wrote. “I do not think that is true.”
As I mentioned earlier, I am a former publicist. Over a period of decades, I worked with many high profile companies and executives. And yet, I have never in my life told a journalist that I didn’t think something was true and peaced out. I might have said “I don’t know and I’ll get back to you,” — but simply “I don’t think so” and that’s it? This is not how it usually works.
So why all the cat and mouse around this issue? Why not just say yes, there was a negotiation, but they settled it, blah blah blah. Is Andrew Golis is embarrassed by it? If so, I get it! After all, a five thousand dollar settlement is… not great? Last week I spoke to an IP lawyer who told me that a settlement of that size is usually reflective of a case that holds little to no merit or that’s been brought for symbolic reasons. For the latter to be true, we’d have to believe that Golis went through six months of hassle in order to let the industry know that it shouldn’t mess with WNYC Studios. That strikes me as a bit too mafioso for Andrew Golis (and public radio more broadly), plus if that were the case, why keep the settlement’s existence under lock and key? No, in my view, it’s more likely that Golis had a weak case, and when things didn’t turn out the way he had envisioned, he tried to shove it under the rug (perhaps literally, as he never cashed in on any of the stipulations in the contract).
Why did Golis bother with this in the first place? I don’t know, but I have a theory.
When WNYC Studios launched back in 2015, then-Chief Content Officer Dean Capello told the New York Times that the venture would be “the way we will become a much, much bigger content company, period.” And for a significant chunk of time, that seemed to bear out. Between 2015 and 2019, Studios became a hit-making epicenter within podcasting. The success of episodic shows like Death, Sex & Money, The New Yorker Radio Hour, Two Dope Queens, Nancy; limited series including Dolly Parton’s America and Trump Inc.; and the podcast versions of shows that had originated on the radio like On the Media and Radiolab, established Studios as a dominant force within the industry.
But by 2021 — two years into Golis’s tenure — WNYC Studios’ streak had slowed. During that timeframe, the size of WNYC’s audience dropped from 5.5 million monthly uniques and 26.4 million “global downloads & streams” in 2019, to 3.6 million monthly uniques and 17.7 “global downloads & streams” in 2021. In 2021, WNYC Studios also fell out of the “top ten” publisher list and according to my research, it never returned. (For comparison purposes, seven out of Podtrac’s 2019 “top ten” list are still there today.)
I give you June of 2019:
Followed by June of 2021:
So when Bernstein and Marritz walked out the door, Golis had to be feeling the pressure. How had he managed to lose these two award-winning, hit-making journalists who were now making a podcast that would likely attract huge audiences to a rival studio? (And indeed Will Be Wild did exactly that.) I could see a situation where his frustration boiled over, setting everything in motion. Of course, this is just a product of my imagination; it’s the numbers on the chart that are 100% real.
Since Golis’s scuffle with Audacy, WNYC Studios’ position on Podtrac’s list of podcast publishers has barely moved. In fact, May’s numbers came out earlier this week, and they are pretty darn close to what they were in June of 2021: 3.7 million monthly uniques, and 20.8 million global downloads and streams.
In fairness, WNYC publishes fewer shows than it did in 2019, but a shrinking portfolio doesn’t strike me as a positive. This is not to say that WNYC hasn’t had podcast success under Golis’s watch; La Brega, a seasonal co-production with Futuro Studios about the Puerto Rican experience, and Dead End, a limited-run investigative series, have both brought in big audiences, and Notes from America, went from local to national distribution (the show itself pre-dates Golis).
But of all of the ongoing, episodic shows in WNYC Studio’s current rotation (that aren’t spinoffs of legacy shows like Radiolab) only one has been created during Golis’s tenure: NYC Now, an on-demand version of the newsroom’s local audio reporting. NYC Now was announced two days after I published part one of this series and I’ve heard it’s getting good numbers, but will a show that repurposes local radio broadcasts become a juggernaut podcast? I’m doubtful.
(Interestingly, in February of 2019, the month Andrew Golis started work at WNYC, the organization announced an upcoming podcast from Gothamist at a “Podcast Upfront,” but it never materialized. Multiple sources told me that Golis nixed it. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
But let’s be generous in this review of Golis’s accomplishments as the leader of WNYC Studios. Let’s assume that he’s been supportive and helpful with all the shows that pre-existed his arrival (except the ones he cancelled or tried to cancel, of course). Let’s assume that Golis helped out with La Brega and Dead End and greenlit NYC Now. Let’s assume that he is responsible, at least in part, for lifting Notes from America into national distribution. And let’s throw Golis some additional credit for the recent relaunch of More Perfect, one of the station’s many Radiolab spinoffs.
If you were paying your Chief Content Officer over half a million dollars per year, and by his fifth year of employment, these were his crowning achievements, would you say your investment had been worth it?
Serious question, would you? (We’ll get to his role on the newsroom side next time, but it won’t change your answer.)
A couple of months ago, a source sent me a recording of a March WNYC all-staff meeting, in which employees have just been informed that, in addition to a previous pause on hiring for most roles, there will also be a pause on promotions, and restrictions around overtime. About midway through, an employee addresses the organization’s newly-minted CEO Lafontaine Oliver. “The promotions pause, the cut back, and overtime, these are things that are going to hit the people at the lowest of the company the hardest … and we've seen that executives have taken over $140,000 raises … given these financial headwinds you’re talking about, are executives considering foregoing bonuses?”
“So, um, that's a great question,” replies Oliver. “No option is off the table. We are considering every option that allows us to control what we can control, which is our expenses, at this point. So yes, that is absolutely on the table.”
That’s all for me this week! Next time, we take a deep dive into the WNYC newsroom.
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Postscript: An encapsulation of my life when I’m not writing The Squeeze: