- Barack and Michelle Obama inked a podcast deal with Spotify via their Higher Ground shingle in 2019.
- As the 3-year deal nears an end, they are preparing to shop for a new partner, sources told Insider.
- Both the former President and former First Lady have hosted podcasts for the audio streaming platform.
Barack and Michelle Obama helped put Spotify on the podcasting map when they announced in June 2019 that they would develop and produce audio-first shows for the music
giant under their Higher Ground production banner.
Now, as their thee-year Spotify deal comes up for renewal, the Obamas are preparing to shop for a new partner, three podcast industry sources told Insider.
It’s possible, one of the sources noted, that the Obamas could renew their deal with Spotify. But the Daniel Ek-led service might have more competition than it did three years ago as other deep-pocketed platforms, including Amazon and Apple, up their investment in podcasts.
The team at Higher Ground Audio, which is led by former Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman, is said to be frustrated with the slow pace of development at Spotify, where it can be hard to get a greenlight. One source said Higher Ground’s pitches don’t always align with the platform’s focus on shows that can reach a wide audience.
Representatives for Higher Ground and Spotify declined to comment.
The Obamas are marquee partners for Spotify and it would be a significant loss for the service if they were to take their podcast business elsewhere. Their deal is nearing its end just as Spotify experiences a backlash over its relationship with another high-profile podcast partner, Joe Rogan, whose interview with a vaccine skeptic has led musicians including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to remove their music from its platform.
The first show under the couple’s deal — “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” which featured her conversations with the likes of Conan O’Brien and Valerie Jarrett — was among Spotify’s most popular podcasts during its exclusive run on the platform, though Spotify later made it available on rival podcast apps.
Former President Obama also hosted his own Spotify show, “Renegades: Born in the USA,” alongside musician Bruce Springsteen.
Other Higher Ground Audio podcasts for Spotify include “Tell Them, I Am,” which featured stories from Muslim voices, and pop culture-centric “The Big Hit Show.” The company also announced last year that it was in development on an adaptation of Heather McGhee’s “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”
Vanity Fair, which first reported on the Obamas’ dissatisfaction with Spotify, noted that they are most interested in producing shows featuring fresh voices.
Spotify has spent well over $1 billion to diversify beyond music content and into the broader audio market, scooping up podcast studios like Gimlet Media and The Ringer and signing exclusive deals with talent including Rogan and Dax Shepard.
A big piece of its strategy has been to ink development deals with bold-faced names like the Obamas and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who have yet to produce a show for Spotify outside of a 2020 holiday special.
So far, the strategy appears to have worked. Spotify said in October, citing third-party data from Edison Research, that it now ranks ahead of Apple Podcasts as the most popular podcast app in the US.
But there have also been challenges, including a cultural reckoning within Gimlet Media linked to its popluar”Reply All” podcast as well as the shuttering of Spotify’s in-house podcast studio, known internally as Studio 4. More recently, the Rogan controversy has led some Spotify podcasters to call out the company.
Brené Brown, for instance, said she would take a pause from producing new episodes as she sought to “better understand the organization’s misinformation policy,” and Wendy Zukerman, host of Gimlet show “Science Vs.” said she would stop making new episodes of the show except to counteract misinformation on the platform.
The Obamas’ podcasting deal with Spotify followed their initial move into entertainment one year earlier, when they announced the formation of Higher Ground and its multi-year film and TV deal with
. They are behind the streamer’s Oscar-winning documentary “American Factory” and Kevin Hart drama “Fatherhood,” among other projects.