I'm gonna preface this article by acknowledging that I come off as bitter. I accept that interpretation of these words if you so choose. Because honestly? I am. I'm bitter on behalf of every single independent content creator who continuously hopes that industries will start to make space for them. The barrier to entry has never been lower for creators, except for the barriers towards acceptance and being viewed legitimately by those in power.
It should also be said that I'm the head of the Fiction Podcast Planning committee at the New Jersey Web Festival. I am also an independent content creator, but I acknowledge that I am potentially speaking out of both sides of my mouth here, optically.
The final caveat I have to make here is that I'm a member of The Podcast Academy (you can see the logo in the lower right of my website) and I'm very happy to be one. Paying my annual fee has given me access to networking, events, and a mentor/mentee system that has been extremely beneficial to my own growth as a podcaster. When the Academy was announced, I saw many threads in the independent podcaster community of people who were skeptical that it wasn't going to turn into just another gatekeeper. I truly believe the founding goal and mission of The Podcast Academy is positive and altruistic. However color me now one of the skeptics that they will be good for podcasters at large rather than for only the established industry.
Last week The Podcast Academy announced the official nominations for the first ever "Ambie" awards. The Ambies promise to "celebrate excellence in podcasting and elevate awareness and status of podcasts as a unique and personal medium for entertainment, information, storytelling and expression." While I would like to believe them, I'm skeptical these awards hold true to those values.
A quick glance through the nominees show an immediate bias to celebrity and multi-million dollar organizations. Now are multi-million dollar organizations releasing incredible content? Yes. Do many people achieve celebrity status due to being insanely talented? Absolutely. However, I don't trust that these nominations were conducted in good faith.
The Podcast Academy lists the following organizations as offering founding support:
There are 164 individual nominations (including those nominated multiple times). A search and cursory glance at cover art on their Nominations page for those companies or their parent companies brings up 81 results. Libsyn and UTA don't actively create content so that means 11 of their 13 founding partners hold over 49% of the nominations. I'd be curious to know what percentage of the nominated shows / individuals are represented by UTA as well. How many host their shows on Libsyn? Does this number go up?
Additionally here's a list of some of the other companies nominated
Plus we have individual nominations for Matthew McConaughey, Willem Dafoe, Tessa Thompson, Mo Rocca, Malcolm Gladwell, Whitney Cummings, and more.
These are extremely talented individuals and some of the biggest corporations in podcasting full of some of the top talent and storytellers in the medium. It is not surprising that many of their shows are nominated. However, in my humble opinion it's laughable to say that in the WIDE landscape of podcasting, that only massive media conglomerates and celebrities are making the best content out there. Statistically almost 50% of it going by The Ambies nomination list. It could not be less representational.
And let's talk about multiple nominations. The Ambies require you to pay $100 for every category you're hoping to be considered for. $100 is already a massive barrier to entry for the vast majority of podcast creators, let alone who then have to decide to submit for specific categories even when their shows are more than qualified to be considered in multiple options. Some of these companies are dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars for just the shows they're actually nominated for. Imagine how much they were able to spend to nominate in every category? In performance categories multiple times, even. It could not be less equitable.
To be clear. I'm not accusing The Podcast Academy OR the companies who funded the foundation of the academy of putting their thumb on the scale here. However I do think they created an awards system that is unfairly weighted against indie content creators and towards those very corporations. I think the individuals at those companies have made absolutely incredible shows, and those shows also received a massively unfair advantage in the submission process that is entirely by design. That could, and should have been called out and rectified both for optical and bias reasons prior to the submission process.
I've spent time in the world of awards shows as a creator, as a nominator/judge, and in close consultation with those who design and execute them. It is not supposed to be like this. Nominations and Awards help shows find greater acclaim and help legitimize them to audiences and producers alike. In the film world, awards help create packets to pitch content for sale to distributors. There's a snarky adage that says if you want to win laurels for your film, start a film festival. The optics here seem like the founding partners of The Podcast Academy took that to heart. And that sucks for every individual who works for them who should be proud their work is being validated and recognized. The optics delegitimize the process. Additionally, the nomination list screams of self-interest. Do we know that Hank the Dog is the best voice acting in podcasting? It might be. But if Matthew McConaughey wins The Ambie and tweets about it, it offers The Podcast Academy and The Ambies industry legitimization. I'd say that creates a conflict of interest for the Academy.
If anything they could have created two different tracks, one for big-budget / commercial productions, and one for indie. Make the decision between the two tracks be the show's budget.
My podcast was not nominated and that's fine, I didn't expect us to end up in competition in the Fiction Category. I submitted because I wanted to make sure that the nominators recognized that fiction is a wider category than I suspected they would nominate. I can't imagine any Actual Play podcast got any real consideration here. I am, however, EXTREMELY excited for the podcasters who are nominated who may be considered truly independent. By my count there are around 10, or ~6% of the 164 nominations.
If awards are going to start existing for podcasts that are meaningful to the community, there are some starting steps that should be taken.
These bullets apply both to festivals with awards consideration, and awards show at large not just The Ambies.
We will be following all of the above bullets and more at the New Jersey Web Festival. It's this kind of experience that led me to partner with them. However, I've written separately about why I'm bringing the film festival experience to independent fiction podcasts, so I won't rehash it here.
When The Podcast Academy was announced a significant amount of the independent podcast world rolled their eyes because they were sure that any company with that specific founding list was going to be as elitist as they come. I and many others asked these podcasters to keep an open mind, because the starting team of individuals is so good. And they've done wonderful things internally, like I said at the top I am very happy with what I've gotten from The Podcast Academy as a member and the service it offers myself and fellow podcasters.
The Ambies seem to show that the naysayers were far more correct than not. The nomination list is a giant collection of conflicting interests, and media conglomerates patting themselves on the back while simultaneously taking the $100 submission fee per category from creators and using it to fund operations. (Check out The Podcast Academy's fancy new website that started rolling out in the last week.)
I had similar critiques for the iHeart Podcast Awards but I held out that The Ambies would turn out to be a celebration of podcasting as a whole. It looks like I was wrong.
Photo by Danny Bristoll
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