Alison Roman + "Call Her Daddy" = The Beef Stew

When media phenoms outgrow the platforms that launched them, the money can get messy.

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Good morning, Lytes of my life, and welcome to another scintillating edition of your favorite newsletter written by a guy living in a tiny Chicago duplex who barely leaves his weirdly shaped room anymore.

If you’re reading this in the morning I hope you’re not intermittent fasting, because today we’re serving up a big helping of media beef stew. For those of you who are “mentally healthy” and have hobbies that extend beyond “being on the internet,” boy do I feel bad for you, because you have missed out on some seriously insular, irrelevant drama this week.

(I’ll get to why they’re important after we’re all familiar with the subject matter.)

First, the Alison Roman Greek tragedy has taken another twist. The Daily Beast reports that the New York Times chef provocateur and viral-stew whipper-upper has been put on temporary leave for comments she made about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo in an interview with a blog that no one has ever heard of. (It should’ve been me!) Here’s the story in full.

Don't let Alison Roman tear down two women and then pretend it's ...

Second, The New York Times’ pop culture whisperer Taylor Lorenz broke the story last night detailing the salacious saga of the “Call Her Daddy” drama. “Call Her Daddy” is a podcast hosted by two women, Sofia Franklyn and Alexandra Cooper, who are both my age and vastly more successful than me.

Franklyn and Cooper started the podcast in 2018, and Barstool Sports acquired it about a month later. On the pod, the two hosts dish about sex, dating and romance as 20-something women in New York, and the formula has proven wildly popular. The podcast is now one of the top 20 on Apple podcasts, and if you’ve been on Tinder lately (a friend told me this), roughly 1 in 3 women mention it in their bio.

I’ll let you read the story in its entirety, but here are the Cliff Notes: Barstool bought “Call Her Daddy” long before it had a significant following. Now, its hosts are social media celebrities, and one of them, Sofia Franklyn, at the behest of her boyfriend (a big no-no to fans of the pod), has been shopping the podcast around to other networks.

This led Barstool’s notoriously unhinged founder, Dave Portnoy, to unleash a tirade on the women, calling them “greedy” for seeking more money. In his defense though, as some fans have noted, Barstool’s offer was more than generous.

Lorenz writes: “Mr. Portnoy said that Ms. Franklyn and Ms. Cooper had each taken home nearly $500,000 last year, a figure far higher than many fans imagined. ‘They’d frequently talk in the podcast about being broke girls in their 20s, which is relatable,’ Ms. Rose said. ‘Then it came out how much they were making.’”

That’s the backstory.

(Also, yes, I am leaving out the Ben Smith vs. Ronan Farrow drama, but it’s worth checking out. The New York Times attacking The New Yorker? It’s like God coldcocking Jesus.)

Here’s why these two case studies are interesting. The “Call Her Daddy” drama and the Alison Roman debacle present different solutions to the same problem.

As Lorenz outlines in her analysis of the “Daddy” issues, the problems stem from a shift in the power dynamic between creators and platforms that can happen over time. Franklyn and Cooper were nobodies when they signed away their IP to Barstool Sports. Now, they are popular enough to succeed independently. But what do they owe Barstool, if anything? Contractually or otherwise, do they have any obligation to return the favor and lend their celebrity to the publisher that gave them an audience and a platform?

The same issue applies to Roman, though with a few critical differences. First, Roman had already cultivated a following when she began working with The Times, so she had more leverage in whatever contract the two parties must have arranged.

And, as far as I can tell, Roman is an independent contractor who has a column with The New York Times, but is not employed by the paper in the same way the “Call Her Daddy” hosts are employed by Barstool. But, like her drama-embroiled compatriots, Roman does owe part of her success to the platform, exposure and audience-building machine that is The New York Times.

Much of the complexity can be boiled down to one thing: The line between publisher and entertainment media has grown very blurry. Barstool Sports has certainly diversified its revenue stream with branded merchandise and podcasts, but at its core it’s a sports blog. And The New York Times, of course, has podcasts, Netflix series, book deals and more, but at its core it’s a newspaper.

The two publishers, in their attempts to adapt to a shifting media landscape, have found themselves in somewhat unfamiliar territory — territory you might more typically find in Hollywood. “Call Her Daddy” and Roman’s column started off innocently enough, but now both entities have become brands in their own right. The New York Times and Barstool Sports are now dealing with “talent.”

Lorenz, in her piece, quotes Emma Gray, a host of “Here to Make Friends,” a podcast about “The Bachelor,” who summarizes this point quite nicely. Gray tells Lorenz:

“I think it’s important for media companies to treat their podcast hosts as talent and therefore use talent contracts in their negotiations rather than a general employment agreement.”

Yes, talent contracts. Of course, it makes sense. The “Call Her Daddy” women are not writers, journalists, engineers or salespeople; they’re entertainers. And while Alison Roman can write and cook, now she’s more than that; she’s a media figure with a brand.

So here’s the thing to watch: As publishers increasingly diversify their offerings beyond pure writing — think podcasts, streaming series, book deals, events — they will encounter this problem more often. They will create stars, and then they will have to deal with those stars.

And when dealing with talent, as Emma Gray points out, you need “talent contracts,” because the level of money is different. In Hollywood, where “talent” contracts are ubiquitous, the numbers involved rarely drop below the million-dollar threshold.

Influencers make millions, actors make millions, musicians make millions, models might even make millions (I’m still waiting on my first contract so that’s just a guess). The New York Times on the other hand, arguably the most successful media company in the modern world, turned a $44.3 million operating profit in Q1. With that amount of money, you get about 10 minutes of Will Smith’s time.

So, for cash-strapped publishers, creating a podcast star who can bring in millions of dollars on their own is something that’s very hard to let walk away. Barstool Sports is not Hollywood; the media world, in general, does not have “talent” money to offer. So how do you keep the stars you created from walking away from you, when you don’t have the money to keep them interested?

The actions of Barstool are generally reprehensible, and frankly I really hate the company, but I can understand where they’re coming from. Portnoy recently described the publisher as “hemorrhaging money” because of Covid. The company is at risk of going belly-up, and its cash cow just walked out. I’d be a little profane too.

The New York Times, unlike Barstool, has very deep pockets and a lot more cultural cache. As a result, they have a level of leverage over their “talent” that almost no other publisher has. That’s why, when Alison Roman finds herself on the wrong end of public opinion, The Times doesn’t have to jump to her defense. They don’t need her in the same way Barstool needs Franklyn and Cooper.

A similar issue happened in 2016-17 when a bunch of BuzzFeed YouTubers left the publisher, explaining to their fans in a series of “Why I Left BuzzFeed” videos that departing was the best choice for their career. They’d used the platform to grow their brand and now, like a baby YouTube bird leaving its proverbial listicle nest, the creators were striking out on their own.

Given that this happened in 2017, when BuzzFeed was in a much better place financially, the publisher moaned and griped but ultimately did nothing. If BuzzFeed had a similarly successful YouTube star now, who decided to leave in 2020, I imagine Jonah Peretti et al. would not be so quick to let them leave. Publishers who need the money their stars generate will be more than willing to sacrifice a little public dignity to hang onto their starlets.

Podcasts have shown how lucrative they can be, and news media across the world are hungry for new sources of revenue. Don’t be surprised if this story repeats itself with more frequency in the future, and don’t be surprised if the acrimony it creates gets only more bitter as publishers get only more desperate.

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