In just two years, “Call Her Daddy,” a raunchy podcast about sex, dating, culture and life in New York, became a cult sensation. This week, it descended into a fireball of chaos and internet drama.
Two friends, Sofia Franklyn, 27, and Alexandra Cooper, 26, started the show in 2018 after coming up with the idea over a vacation. The podcast was acquired by Barstool Sports about a month after the first episode aired and quickly began raking in hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
It jumped from 12,000 to two million downloads in just two months and topped the podcast charts. It is one of the top 20 most popular on Apple Podcasts.
“They talk about things everyone can relate to, especially people in college and their 20s,” said Addison Rose, 19, a college student and longtime fan. “It’s interesting to hear sex talked about in such an honest way from a women’s perspective. It was refreshing.”
Ms. Cooper wrote in a post titled “How Did Two ‘Blow Up Dolls’ Land a Barstool Deal”: “Barstool liked our idea of uncensored, real, female locker room talk, which quite frankly is just as nasty as guy locker room talk. And we had no problem exploiting our experiences — as well as ourselves — for our listeners’ entertainment.”
But in the past month, the “Call Her Daddy” empire has tumbled, exposing the inevitable issues media companies face when their star employees morph into powerful influencers.
“This controversy is starting to show some of the macro issues in the media businesses built around these personalities,” said Blake Robbins, a partner at Ludlow Ventures, a venture capital firm. “It’s the pull of influencers outgrowing the media brands that invested in their careers.”
An Uncertain Future
The last time anyone heard from the two “Call Her Daddy” hosts directly was on April 8, when they uploaded an episode with the cryptic subtitle “Kesha… The End.” Then, the podcast’s feed went dark.
Fans began tweeting the hashtag #FreeTheFathers, speculating that the hosts were being silenced by their parent company, Barstool Sports. “Fathers” is an affectionate nickname given to the “Call Her Daddy” hosts.
On April 21, Ms. Franklyn and Ms. Cooper posted a statement to Instagram saying that they “legally can’t speak out yet” about what has been taking place behind the scenes. (Neither Ms. Cooper nor Ms. Franklyn responded to requests to comment for this article.) Tabloids speculated on a fallout between the two. Fans posted theories that they’d dropped hidden messages in the titles of recent episodes indicating trouble.
On Sunday, the tension that had been quietly brewing for weeks boiled over.
Dave Portnoy, the Barstool Sports founder and president, posted a 30-minute tell-all episode to the “Call Her Daddy” podcast feed, calling Ms. Franklyn and Ms. Cooper “unprofessional, disloyal and greedy” before revealing the full details of his side of the messy contract dispute.
According to Erika Nardini, the C.E.O. of Barstool, more than 35 percent of Barstool’s revenue now comes from the company’s podcast business, and “Call Her Daddy” was a crown jewel. Mr. Portnoy said the company was losing $100,000 per missed episode and said that he offered the hosts a guaranteed base salary of $500,000 a year, plus bonuses, among other incentives that he estimated would ultimately net them millions, to return to the show.
Ms. Cooper, he said, had agreed to the new terms, but Ms. Franklyn refused, according to Mr. Portnoy, on the advice of her boyfriend, the HBO Sports executive Peter Nelson, referred to as “suitman” on the podcast. Mr. Nelson helped Ms. Franklyn and Ms. Cooper shop the podcast around to other networks, according to Mr. Portnoy.
On Tuesday, Mr. Portnoy announced new “Call Her Daddy” merch emblazoned with the phrase “cancel suitman,” alluding to Mr. Nelson. Fans lashed out at Mr. Nelson online for coming between the two friends and “ruining the podcast.”
Now, the future of the show is uncertain. According to Mr. Portnoy, Ms. Cooper will likely return and take over “Call Her Daddy,” and an offer is out to Ms. Franklyn. They might host competing podcasts, both on the Barstool Network.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Franklyn addressed the controversy on Instagram Stories. “Did Barstool help blow up ‘Call Her Daddy?’ 100 percent,” she said. But, that doesn’t mean she’ll be returning. “I found out that Alex had gone behind my back and done something and I found out that it wasn’t the first time. I’m willing to do ‘Call Her Daddy,’ I really am. I can’t do it under the circumstances that she wants,” Ms. Franklyn said.
In the meantime, thousands of fans have continued weighing in online. Many have begged for a reconciliation. Others feel deeply betrayed.
In his tell-all, 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.”
“$500k a year to talk about sex once a week and that’s not good enough for you? Imagine having it THAT easy.. feel betrayed as a fan tbh,” another fan tweeted.
‘People Expect Transparency’
Media companies have long acted as talent incubators, providing content producers name-brand recognition and access to a larger audience. But, as that talent builds a following on social media, the balance of power shifts. Often, talent no longer needs the media company to operate as a middleman, and many realize they could monetize their own platforms more effectively by themselves.
“Even though this feels messy and salacious, it actually does touch on much larger questions about media institutions and talent, and how they create value and contracts with each other,” said Nicholas Quah, the founder of Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts.
When “Call Her Daddy” started, Ms. Franklyn and Ms. Cooper were relatively unknown. Now they have about one million followers on Instagram each and wield a wide and loyal audience online. To Barstool Sports, however, they were simply employees.
“We’re entering a period where creators are business owners and media brands of their own. They can’t just be seen as employees,” said Jordi Hays, a digital strategist who works with online creators in Los Angeles. “The tools are available to them to become founders and C.E.O.s of their brand, and develop businesses with multiple powerful revenue streams like merch, ad sales and subscription revenue.”
This isn’t the first time high-profile internet creators decided their media company wasn’t working for them anymore and decided to forge out their own. In 2016, a slew of employees of BuzzFeed Video left to become full-time YouTubers. Scott Rogowsky went through extensive complex contract negotiations after HQ Trivia minted him as a star.
And Tfue, an elite Fortnite player, sued FaZe Clan, a gaming content collective, in 2019, to escape what he considered an exploitive contract. “The time is now for content creators, gamers and streamers to stop being taken advantage of through oppressive, unfair and illegal agreements,” he wrote in the suit.
While most traditional publishers and media brands would balk at litigating a contract dispute in public, Mr. Portnoy and Barstool Sports have proven themselves adept at leveraging online attention in their favor.
“A lot of companies would try to sweep this under the rug and put out a press release, but in this new world of media where these people are huge personalities, people expect transparency,” Mr. Robbins said. “This is a Barstool gold mine. They want these story lines. They can now create these competing podcasts between the ‘Call Her Daddy’ hosts, and I have no doubt that both would do really well.”
That’s assuming both women would return. Grace Atwood, a lifestyle influencer and co-host of the podcast “Bad on Paper,” said she could see why they may not want to. “These girls have nearly one million followers, they can make $10,000 or $20,000 for a single Instagram post,” she said. “You can take that audience and do anything. You could start a fashion label, you could start a spinoff podcast. If that audience likes and trusts you, there’s literally endless things you can do with it. Imagine getting to that level and then taking a $75,000 salary.”
Emma Gray, a host of “Here to Make Friends,” a podcast about “The Bachelor,” owned by HuffPost, said that she has loved the production, sales and support HuffPost has offered since she teamed with the company five years ago to start her show.
Still, “we all know that followers are literal capital at this point,” she said. “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.”
For talent negotiations, there’s no better person to have on your side than an experienced talent agent or a lawyer. Quinn Heraty, the founder of Heraty Law, has worked extensively with podcasters. Ms. Heraty said that she encourages nearly all hosts to go independent. “Being an employee is just working to create value for someone else,” she said.
But for those who do take a deal with a more established media brand, the important thing is to negotiate equitable terms from the beginning. “When you have a deal that’s inherently more favorable to one side or another, that’s going to, over the course of the deal, cause stress on the relationship,” she said. “Deals change over the lifetime of a business relationship because these dynamics are dynamic.”
The systems for monetization are also increasingly complex. Most aspiring podcasters don’t think of negotiating things like ownership of their back catalog, licensing agreements, platform exclusivity, intellectual property and more, upfront. “The deal making is only becoming more complex,” said Oren Rosenbaum, the head of emerging platforms at United Talent Agency. And, “we’re still on the ground floor. We’re still in the infancy of this business.”
No matter how the situation with “Call Her Daddy” resolves, these conflicts won’t go away as long as the traditional media ecosystem remains in flux. But fans and those in the online creator industry are rapt.
“This is one of the first times in this new personality-driven media world that we’ve gotten insight into how the contracts are actually structured,” Mr. Robbins said. “Dave and Barstool clearly do bring something to the table, because they’re making this one of the most talked-about things in pop culture.”
(By Taylor Lorenz/The New York Times)