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Gretta Cohn

Gretta Cohn

· Time to read: ~10 min

This interview was first in the Podcast Business Journal newsletter, with the latest podcast news and data. Subscribe free today.

Gretta Cohn is CEO of Pushkin Industries — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability

Gretta spoke with Sam Sethi for the Podnews Weekly Review

Gretta Cohn: We are committed to making audio, in any genre, any style, that is high quality, that entertains, that educates and that finds audience. And we are committed, as we say now, to “good, smart, fun!” - that’s our driving motto.

SS: You’ve got a very extensive slate. I was very excited when you got Paul McCartney recently. Were you on board when that deal happened?

GC: I came into Pushkin in the summer of 2022 when Pushkin acquired my production company, Transmitter Media, so the McCartney project was well underway. My first role at Pushkin was as SVP of Content, and so I dove right into that project, and I have a background as a musician. Some of my favorite content to consume is music, so that was one of the first projects that I immediately took a shine to. What was fascinating about that show is that the team had to work with archives that were recorded a number of years ago, when Paul Muldoon was preparing to write the book “The Lyrics”, and they were not intending to use any of that audio material in any shape or form, and so it was recorded in a very sort of offhand way. They’re often eating lunch or eating almonds or drinking tea or eating something else, and so there were certainly challenges for the production team immediately coming into that project in terms of making this beautiful, highly listenable and addictive series that we have today. But they did a wonderful job, and it’s been fantastic working with Paul McCartney’s team and collaborating with them on A Life In Lyrics as well.

SS: How do you decide on what you’re going to add to that slate? How does that process go?

GC: As you well know, launching a brand new show is one of the hardest things that we can do. When we’re thinking about adding something new to our roster, we’re really thinking about if our audience is going to enjoy and learn from it - is it going to challenge them in interesting ways - and can we use our network to grow an audience? Pushkin had its fair share of experiments in the last couple of years, where we launch a show and it’s really tough to find audience and get that footing. There comes a point where, if you’re not driving audience, what are you doing? So we’re very committed to using the full power of our network to build and launch new shows, new hosts, and to find audience.

SS: There has been a drive in the industry for celebrity-led podcasting. We’ve seen others doing the same. Where does Pushkin stand?

GC: I think our celebrities are more of the bookish folks who are thought leaders, thinkers, writers. So we’re not necessarily capital C celebrity. If we’re launching something new, we’re looking for people who have an audience, a group that is going to be interested in what they’re going to be doing. But it’s usually because they’ve written a very powerful book, or they have a really different or interesting perspective - like Dr Laurie Santos, who is a professor at Yale and has this whole happiness course that she developed there.

SS: Looking at 2023, it was a pretty hard year. You weren’t alone. How did that affect Pushkin directly?

GC: 2023 was a really hard year for the industry. For Pushkin, we had layoffs. We had to look at our network and think about what is sustainable for us to do going forward, and so we had to make some hard choices to ensure that the network could remain and become strong again. Part of that was looking at shows that were not profitable, looking at shows that were not driving audience, and making some hard decisions there.

When you eliminate shows from the roster, unfortunately it also means that our staff needed to right-size to accommodate that change. So in October, as we talked about, we had also not only some downsizing, but we had a major restructure of the company. So the leadership team changed, and I think what we are endeavoring to do with that change is really to focus on sustainability. I’m not sure that was a word that was a driving factor. I don’t think that was necessarily the philosophy up until that point. What we are now focused on is thinking about how are we growing audience. How are we spending the right amount on making a show? How are we ensuring that we’re able to recoup our costs and then actually have rev shares with our hosts, so that everyone is happy? And that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to grow. We want to grow in terms of our network, and then, once we’re able to sustainably grow our network, we can then think about growing our staff size again.

SS: Does profitability, as well as sustainability, factor in as one of the main words for 2024?

GC: I would say sustainability, but yes, also profitability. We’re pointed in that direction.

SS: In terms of where Pushkin is going, you’ve got another interesting part to the business: a very strong audiobook business. When did that form and how do you separate between what is fundamentally a podcast and what is a chargeable audiobook?

GC: It’s a different sort of art form than podcast, in many ways. A documentary podcast is something that may take nine months or a year.

Our audiobooks team is from the publishing industry. Our VP of Audiobooks, Kerri Kolen, has had a long and very decorated career in publishing both print and audiobooks. She understands that world deeply, so she works very closely with audiobook authors to generate ideas to write manuscripts. When we’re making a podcast we have table reads, we have scripts, we have tape and all of those good things that go into making a podcast, but an audiobook really starts with a manuscript, which is a very different process. Oftentimes, the folks who are coming in to be the narrator and voice of these audiobooks have a very specific point of view, and maybe it wouldn’t be appropriate for a podcast.

We are extremely dedicated to making audiobooks that do something different than your typical audiobook. Early in my career, I was a director and engineer at Recorded Books. I was freelancing as a podcast producer, and I was a director at an audiobooks company. At that audiobooks company, you’d go into the room, and press record. The most that I had in front of me was a pronounce list so that I could correct an author when they were mispronouncing something. Our audiobooks are just like leaps beyond, in the sense that they are truly crafted in a beautiful, intentional way.

SS: Are you going to go into any other genres like video?

GC: We are certainly interested in experimenting with video, and with expanding into the visual realm. We are an audio first company and so that means that we don’t necessarily have the staff who are experts in that at the moment. I think video and audio are very distinct mediums, and so when thinking about working in visual and in video, we want to be certain that we are doing it in a way that serves the viewer right. We don’t want to just put something out that’s going to be like an afterthought.

We have been experimenting. Some of our shows do capture some amount of video - I think in our new series of Revisionist History, Development Hell, there are a couple of little clips that we’re collecting on video and they’re wonderful to see. There is an element that’s added when you see someone telling the story visually, that’s just fantastic. But you know some of our shows could really lend themselves to video or show. This morning I was listening to Broken Record, to the interview that Justin Richmond has done with PJ Harvey and John Parish. I’m a huge fan. Would I like to be able to watch that interview and see PJ Harvey in that way? Definitely yes. So it’s something that we are definitely exploring and is on our radar. Are we there yet? Not quite.

SS: One of the other areas that a lot of production companies are looking at are international foreign language translations. Are you looking to technology to internationalize what you do, or are you looking for native speakers and then re-record?

GC: We are exploring this. We are working on a Spanish translation of The Happiness Lab, using native speakers with Univision, and that project is underway. Are we looking at the potential for AI? Certainly we are. We would not be doing our due diligence if we weren’t trying to understand how it might work. I think that there is a lot of opportunity to bring some of our most popular shows to audiences in their language. So we are on that train. We are exploring it from all directions.

SS: This week, Apple launched iOS 17.4 with transcriptions. Is this something that Pushkin is going to be focusing on adding transcriptions to all of their podcasts?

GC: When I was at Hot Pod last week I ran into Jake Shapiro from Apple in the hallway, and he showed me one of our shows, Cautionary Tales - and we looked at the transcript together and I think it’s excellent. I think accessibility is really important; also if you are a listener who wants to return to an episode that you had heard last year and you’re looking because you wanted to maybe find out like, oh, what did PJ Harvey say about cats and beef heart, you can then search in the transcript. Yeah, I think it’s excellent. I’m really glad it’s here and I think we will be really continuing to ensure that we have transcripts across our shows.

SS: Now Pushkin has got something called Pushkin Plus, a subscription-based model; and obviously you’ve got an advertising-driven model. Are you looking at any other forms of monetization?

GC: Well, there are audiobooks - I would say the third leg of the stool. We’ve got our ads-based our podcasts and our ads-based monetization, as you say, our subscription service, Pushkin Plus, then, yeah, audiobooks. It becomes a really fantastic way that we can actually connect directly with listeners. Audiobooks are a great way for us to be working on content that has its own type of monetization that is free from the ads, the ups and downs of the ads market. That is an area where we’re going to be focused on growth, for sure.

SS: Looking back on 2024, what would success look like for you?

GC: We’d love to launch shows that make an impact on audience. We have a number of audiobooks that we’re releasing this year. We’d love to see them also drive audience. Coming out this spring is The Art of Small Talk, which I think is going to be a fantastic and funny and informative book. Then, of course, sustainability and profitability.

On top of that, for our wonderful staff at Pushkin, we’re really focused on a healthy, happy workplace where people can show up every day, feel proud of the work they’re doing, enjoy working with their colleagues, feel supported, and have the resources that they need. Particularly coming out of what last year was, that’s a huge priority for me: and so at the end of 2024, if I can say that I have a happy, healthy staff and community of producers, marketers, and operations folks that would be a huge success.

SS: Greta, thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on your new role. Thank you for having me. And all the success for 2024.

GC: Thanks so much, Sam.

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