Who owns a podcast’s ‘brand’?

Nick Hilton
4 min readOct 19, 2022
Podcast evolution

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Very few people who pay attention to the podcast market here in the UK will be unfamiliar with The High Low, a podcast that was made for several years by journalists Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes, and which regularly featured as one of the most popular shows in the UK.

Those same people will be surprised, therefore, by the announcement last week that Emily Ratajkowski, the Blurred Lines supermodel-turned-author, known to the internet as emrata, was to start her own podcast. “That’s right, I finally have a podcast,” she announced on Instagram. “Now introducing: HIGH LOW! I’m really fucking excited!”

Ah well, the name isn’t so unique as to be impossible to reuse. Probably there’s no crossover and the shows will be totally different… Ratajkoswki’s expressed purpose in making her podcast is to invite on “celebrities, incredible authors, close friends and people I admire” to a show where they’ll be “discussing everything from politics and feminism to sex and Tik Tok”. Hmm… the old High Low was a weekly chat discussing high and low culture, from celebrities and technology to arts and books. It also featured (perhaps more occasional) celebrity guests including Tina Brown, Jim Chapman and Graham Norton. Both are aimed predominantly at young women; both have a distinct feminist identity.

Now, the Alderton/Sykes High Low (herein called the “old High Low”) ended in December 2020 and perhaps that makes the title fair game, though the archive is still live and popular. To me, the repetition feels weird, as though the decision has been made by someone who has no idea of the marketplace into which they’re entering. All the more baffling is the fact that the Ratajkowski podcast is being made by Somethin’ Else, a British company (now a subsidiary of Sony Music). Someon’ at Somethin’ Else must’ve known about the existence of another podcast called The High Low before they commissioned the Ratajkowski version. Someone must’ve Googled the name.

That sense of identity is something that is occasionally troubling in the world of podcasting. Another example from the last few weeks is the launch of the New York Times’ Hard Fork. What is a ‘hard fork’, you might ask? Well, here’s Coinbase’s definition: “A hard fork happens when the code changes so much the new version is no longer backward-compatible with earlier blocks.” It’s some blockchain bollocks, but essentially the joke is: this podcast is a divergence that no longer makes sense with what came before.

Underlying that punchline (I realise I’ve deconstructed this in an unorthodox order) is the fact that the show has been launched on the feed that used to host Kara Swisher’s Sway podcast. Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of Swisher and Sway, as it was. The show was about technology and the media, but also about leadership and futurology. Hard Fork is a show about technology: it’s opportunities and limitations. It is not a true like-for-like substitution. Sway was much more of an interview show (or Swisher hosting a panel discussion), whereas Hard Fork is a magazine format with co-hosts and a lot more of that good ol’ American banter.

Subscribers to Sway will have been surprised to see Hard Fork in their feeds. I saw people on Twitter complaining about this. Ultimately, it is up to the New York Times, as the publisher, to decide how they use their IP. With Sway now defunct, they have a channel that likely still has many tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of subscribers. Should they not be allowed to exploit that, simply because it might alienate listeners who subscribed for a specific show?

The decision was made easier, I suspect, by the fact that Swisher has gone over to the Vox owned New York magazine to host a new podcast, On with Kara Swisher. Keeping Sway intact would only serve to act as an extra advertising vehicle for a competitor. But both this and the High Low story have made me think about the challenges around podcast identity.

Who owns a name? Who owns a premise? Who owns a channel or a feed? What do we owe listeners or subscribers? We all, I think, accept the premise that if I started a Peppa Pig re-watch podcast and after gaining 100,000 subscribers turned that channel into a show where I, instead of recapping the adventures of Peppa and George, took heroin and promoted eugenics, would have crossed a line. Swapping a tech leadership podcast for a tech news podcast doesn’t seem to cross that line. But where is the line?

And while Alderton and Sykes can likely do nothing to protect the integrity of their pre-existing High Low brand, it is somehow strange that they do not own the right to call an arts, politics and feminism podcast, The High Low. That feels like a failing of the system, but I don’t think the system has failed. I think the system doesn’t exist. I think these are questions that a mature, financially stable, industry would’ve answered some time ago, but which podcasting, that is in a perpetual state of arrested development, has never really grasped. But both are important, and growing ever more so. The question of talent and IP looms over the industry, and we need the clarity of an established playbook before we can start analysing its disintegration.

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Nick Hilton

Writer. Media entrepreneur. London. Interested in technology and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.