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Sept. 12, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
Business Models

An island no more: Inside the business of the podcasting boom

Through its early history, podcasting seemed separated from the waves of change happening in other sectors of digital media. But today, it’s increasingly facing the same questions. Part 1 of a five-part series on the business of on-demand audio.

When Jenna Weiss-Berman left her job as head of Buzzfeed Audio earlier this year, she hoped that she could attract a little startup capital for her new podcast startup. Indeed, she could: Within four weeks, no fewer than four venture capital firms began offering her and Pineapple Street Media cofounder Max Linsky funding.

How hot is podcasting? Stupid V.C. money hot.

Money is chasing money. Podcast advertising expanded at a 48 percent rate last year, and it’s forecast to grow about 25 percent a year through 2020. By that point, it would be approaching half a billion dollars in annual ad revenue. That growth is rising from a small base, yes, but it’s very reminiscent of the old Interactive Advertising Bureau charts of Internet advertising we saw at the turn-of-the-century: tiny numbers growing explosively.

We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.

“The interesting thing is that, in this last six to nine months, I feel like we actually turned the corner,” observes Bryan Moffett, who heads ad sales for NPM, NPR’s sale arm. NPR — the leader in podcast audience — earns more than $10 million in podcast revenue and owns a double-digit share of the market. “We’re getting in business from Wells Fargo and Dell and Target — big Fortune 100 brands.”

It’s not just the brands, but the size of the deals. Six-figure ad buys, rare until recently, are now more commonplace. That incipient brand acceptance of the medium drives the central hope that reality may exceed even today’s rosy forecasts.

Behind those numbers lies a story of an industry in hyper-drive. New high-quality programs are being created in bunches, while a spate of newly minted podcast networks aim for audience recognition. Their names have likely flitted in one ear and out the other so far, but you’ll hear more of them.

A dozen networks showed their wares at last week’s second annual Podcast Upfront — pushing podcasts to big brand advertisers. In the same week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau finished a first set of precedent-setting standards for an industry that’s now arrived.

This is a tale what once seemed a bit like a cottage industry beginning to look like a true digital media sector, following the path of its non-audio peers. In fact, one significant innovation, specifically echoing digital display advertising, drives this revolution. In 2015, no more than five percent of podcast ads were delivered dynamically, industry observers say. By some time next year, almost all your favorite programs will include them. That could mean fresher, more targeted, less redundant — and more lucrative — advertising.

A startup industry long bedeviled by lack of numbers — Apple, still responsible for 60 percent of all downloads, provides a fairly dumb pipe — is figuring out new ways to better quantify its value to advertisers.

Of course, that digitization of podcasting could be a double-edged sword. Its burgeoning success now puts two key questions in higher profile. Does anything about the podcast format offer protection from the ravages of intense digital competition for advertising money? Should, and will, programmatic podcasting advertising be a boon, or, as it has been in digital display advertising, a race to the pricing bottom?

What’s now clear is that podcasts have joined the digital text and video as a prominent new media form of its own — a format for storytelling that is connecting with a broad audience.

Pineapple Street Media — which ended up declining any VC investment — is only one player in the would-be gold rush. More than half a dozen newly minted companies of significance have convinced themselves that there are digital media riches to be found well beyond ad-fed eyeballs.

You may have heard the names tumble out over the past few years: Gimlet Media, Wondery, and Panoply are among those that have joined public media stalwarts NPR, WNYC, Radiotopia, and WBUR, radio-rooted PodcastOne, and comedy-driven Midroll Media in the contest for new audiences. Audible has become the first of the “legacy” audio-on-demand companies to jump big-time into podcasting. More startups will likely soon join them. Each of these new companies aims for a place in the fray. Some, like Gimlet and This American Life/Serial, are fairly pure content plays, while fast movers like Art19 are primarily about tech and platform.

Leader of the pack NPR describes itself as having a twin podcasting focus. “For us, the programming and, again, the delivery are two sides of the same coin,” says Tom Hjelm, NPR’s new chief digital officer. “As we think about the business and the audience engagement opportunities, we think through those two lenses.”

Many describe a variety of identities: studio, network, ad seller, platform. They share a focus on content creation and distribution, and on the monetizing, via advertising, of those audiences. Some build their own tech; others are glad to license it.

Today’s relatively small ad numbers don’t depress the entrepreneurs; they energize them. Look at the time spent on listening to podcasts, they assert, sure that the money will follow audiences’ time spent on their medium. The biggest aspiration of the day: to become the Netflix of spoken audio. It’s Netflix, with its 83 million global subscribers, that has shone a new light on what’s possible in digital entertainment money-making.

Those who believe that podcasting is indeed the Next Big Thing are a motley lot, but they all paint a similar landscape. “When I talk to investors, I make a parallel between the television industry, the music industry, and audio on demand, right? Audio entertainment on demand as I call it,” explains Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez. He repeats the simple pitch he’s been using with funders: “Television has moved, drastically, to on-demand already. Music has moved to on-demand. And audio entertainment is the next one to go.”

The nomenclature is tricky. Just as we all are having a harder time separating out “TV” from “video” as Roku and the Apple TV blur those lines, podcasters sometimes strain to distinguish on-demand “audio” from “radio” — even as “radio” programming makes the full circle increasingly to “audio” and back to “podcasts.” Consumers, though, as usual, are ahead of this confusion: They just want their shows whenever they want to listen, and expect that somebody will figure that out for them.

Lopez finds himself among a diverse set of dreamers and schemers. This next generation flocks in from diverse locales. Many can be counted as “public radio refugees,” as PRX’s Kerri Hoffman calls them. Digital media, TV and old-fashioned radio also send their most adventurous.

That generation now includes Audible’s Eric Nuzum, NPR’s Hjelm, RadioPublic’s Jake Shapiro, Midroll’s Lex Friedman, Panoply’s Jacob Weisberg, WBUR’s Iris Adler, Acast’s Sarah Van Mosel, Gimlet’s Matt Lieber, and Pineapple Street’s Weiss-Berman and Linsky.

Even legacy newspaper companies, who’d launched earlier podcast forays only to step back, see new opportunity. The New York Times launched podcasts a decade ago, but only two remain from the early days. Despite its embrace of all things digital, podcasting hadn’t become a significant part of the company’s new digital strategy — until this summer. The Times has now announced three new shows, following its successful collaboration with WBUR, Modern Love.

Samantha Henig, newly announced as head of a six-person audio team, detailed the depth of the Times’ audio commitment to me recently. “We got a three-year investment from the company based on our business plan, which had a lot of assumptions. Now that we’re a little deeper into it, we have a better sense of what we can do. Advertisers are excited, and we might scale up our ambitions in the coming years.”

Meanwhile, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, public radio’s first hour-long weekly investigative show, has exploited podcasting well to increase its reach beyond its large syndication. The show, now carried by 333 public radio stations, saw its impact multiplied by 860,000 podcast downloads in July.

Even politicians are discovering the power of podcast. In early August, Hillary Clinton broke new ground, as the With Her podcast debuted at No. 3 on iTunes’ rankings.

Then, there are the legacy companies in broad transition. Acquisitions (Midroll/Earwolf, Stitcher) by E.W. Scripps, a long-time newspaper company now transformed to TV/digital, have made it a podcast business force.

The mainstreaming of podcasting

We’re seeing podcasting grow rapidly from its twin roots — public media and comedy. Now a spectrum of new players has emerged. They bring what Hot Pod’s Nicholas Quah calls a “professionalizing layer” of the industry — that array of podcast networks and aggregators, advertisers and agencies. That group expects podcasting to become more like other digital media businesses.

The signs of that mainstreaming are everywhere. On an early August Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, host Peter Sagal introduced guest Katie Couric, like this: “She’s hosted the Today Show and anchored the CBS Evening News. She reached the highest highs of journalism. Now she has a podcast. It just goes to show you no matter how high you rise, one little slip up, and you’re back down here with us.”

Good joke, and within it, the seeds of change. Couric, Malcolm Gladwell, Alec Baldwin, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, and Shaquille O’Neal have all joined the revolution, seeing podcast’s unique profile-building benefits. It’s one more platform for ideas, for news, and for entertainment. As we look into podcasting’s near future, we’ll see many more extensions of legacy forms into podcasting.

In podcasting, the commercial allure depends, in part, on the beholder’s experience. How you look into the kaleidoscope of opportunity determines what you see.

If you see it as a cousin of the commercial radio business, it means taking away some of that industry’s $14 billion in advertising. It’s the shift from what broadcasters serve up at any given moment to what listeners want to hear right now. Veteran radio exec Norm Pattiz has applied radio models for his big PodcastOne (200 shows) aggregator.

Others see lots of peril in that radio model. “We don’t want to see podcasting radio-ized,” says NPM’s Moffett. “We don’t want this to turn into commercial radio.”

If you see it like cable business, it means knowing that lots of smaller audience niches rolled up can provide big-enough markets and cheap cross-promotional opportunities.

For most, though, this looks like a digital startup business, with echoes of the web’s late ’90s, playing out in parallel. Consider the resonance of podcasting with the digital business opportunities and issues of the day:

  • The application of a thin, cheap technology layer — capable of personalizing, tracking, and measuring — turning a relatively dumb business into a smarter, efficient one.
  • An explosion of new digital ad inventory, able to monetize back catalog or evergreen programming with current, trackable and targetable ads, as dynamic ad insertion moves from niche to a standard very quickly.
  • Early introduction of programmatic ad thinking.
  • The both/and mix of lots of aggregation and brand-supporting original content. That, too, mimics the formation of digital media companies, from The Huffington Post to Business Insider. Many podcast companies find themselves busily licensing one-off shows, finding creators eager to do the creating and leave the business to others. Even as these companies fast track their own originals, à la Amazon or Netflix, they bulk up with licensed content. Both serve as our best contemporary examples of “walled gardens”; the lesson of digital pay is that your garden must be bountiful, with a low entry price.
  • Branded content making its way into the podcast lexicon, as newcomer Panoply with its late 2015 GE show The Message, which opened eyes to connecting one of the hottest digital ad categories with podcasting.
  • New efforts to connect podcasts — long a separate quarter of media — to Facebook and Twitter in hopes of increasing the virality of podcast touts, moving beyond podcast-to-podcast referral. As we move into 2017, podcasting, like digital media businesses begins to work the nuances of social.
  • While those in the field can draw analogies from everything like early blogging to digital video, most would agree with Acast’s Van Mosel. “I think that if you had to choose one medium that audio is following in the footsteps of, albeit a few years behind, I would say digital video.”

That’s just the top of the list as podcasting begins to look more like other digital media businesses. While once separated by mode of delivery, ad sales techniques, and metrics, podcasting no longer seems like an island apart in the sea of digital media.

Bubbling, but clearly pre-bubble, this emerging podcast business looks a lot like the early web. Twenty years ago, entrepreneurs and investors made early bets that money would follow audience. Portals — from early Yahoo to Infoseek, Altavista, Lycos, and Excite, to name just a few — strained to define themselves. Were they aggregators (we were in the pre-“curation” period), publishers, networks, studios, or just convenient places to connect advertisers and new readers?

Just about everything in the digital media business has changed in the last two decades, so these podcast companies confront a vastly different world. But make no mistake: Podcasting is a digital media business. Though it emerged separately, both for consumers and for producers, it now looks more and more like all the digital media that have come to dominate our time and economy. It’s an industry heavily reliant on advertising and fast, targeted audience growth.

NPM’s Bryan Moffett recalls the early days of digital ad selling. “It’s just like 12 years ago [in digital],” he says pointing to the necessary development of standards and metrics, and of the emergence of podcast-specific ad buyers. In the big picture, though, as with the earlier days of the web, the goal is simple: Get big fast.

These audio startups look a lot like their digital cousins in staffing, too. In fact, the new companies — many based in same relatively small sections of downtown and midtown Manhattan as the Voxes and BuzzFeeds — draw staff from those companies as well. Gimlet counts most of its employees in the same mid-’20s to late ’30s age cohort that drives the digital business — young, educated, and digitally savvy. And, out of the mouths of these podcast pioneers come the familiar lexicon of the digital revolution: metrics, engagement, discoverability.

This burst of creativity is also helping to transform legacy public media. NPR and others have seen their eyes opening up to new, younger, diverse talent that hadn’t had a place to show itself. “It gives us a chance to impact the sound of the network, with younger, more conversational, informal voices,” NPR CEO Jarl Mohn told me recently. “Then we can test ideas, and we can also test talent.” Listeners have heard younger NPR voices like Sam Sanders and Domenico Montanaro throughout the torturous election season. NPR has given its youth-building a name: Unleash from Within.

Podcast personality persists

Podcasts each have their own personality, their own voice. They aren’t yet snippetized like news articles by Google, or aggregated by Facebook. But “the platforms” are now engaged in early conversations with podcasters about what platform-distributed podcasts might look like, and how advertising would work.

Podcasting still operates as an open system, and that gives the new independents hope. Unlike text- and even video-based media, they enable personality and personalities to exude. Joy, intrigue, fascination, and aha moments: These emotional responses to many programs simply have put podcasting in a different place.

Coverage of the podcasting boom has been voluminous (including Nick Quah here at the Lab) and deserved this year. To it, I want to add the lens of the larger digital media business. I aim to add comparative data and benchmarks to the wonderful continuing narrative of the podcast revolution, Alex Blumberg’s StartUp, upon which Gimlet Media raised $7.5 million in venture money.

I’ve spoken with more than three dozen podcast business leaders, those up to their ears in aural innovation. This is clearly a podcast moment in American media, but one very much in progress. Now, in a five-part series, we’ll look at the field broadly today.

Here, in Part 1, look at the big podcast picture. We also can look at the wider landscape and the big questions in front of the entrepreneurs, and the big audio incumbents today.

Then, in Part 2, we’ll delve deeper into podcasting’s ad growth, and the kinds of personality-led ads that define the business today. We look at the sectors where podcasting excels (mainly direct response) and what it needs to do to win the big money from brand advertisers.

Can podcast ads grew substantially beyond the Squarespaces and Blue Aprons, the early direct marketers that have found them so effective? Can the industry take in more than experimental dollars from Procter & Gamble? How goes the quest for standards, key to all ad trades? Finally, we look at the role ad technology — especially analytics-based dynamic ad insertion — plays in the industry’s transformation.

In Part 3, we look at listener revenue, the analog of the reader revenue that has become so important to the digital news media companies. How is subscription working, and with what nuances? Where does crowdfunding fit into this landscape? Given that personality-listener connection, how big a role might live events and merchandise selling assume? How does listener revenue translate into new money for public media, both at the NPR and local station levels, as the latter begin to noodle the podcast/membership connection?

In Part 4, we look at how technology will further transform this trade that has grown from artisanal roots. What are dynamics of audience measurement? What will happen to the user experience, as new products roll into the marketplace to improve discovery? To what degree is Apple’s outsized position in podcasting — with 60 percent of downloads still mediated by its iTunes or its mobile Podcasts app — an impediment to the metrics some in the trade crave? Will Apple remain “a supportive and hands-off platform,” as Gimlet’s Matt Lieber describes it, and keep its hands to itself?

Finally, in Part 5, we look at the likelihood of how the podcasting industry will further develop — which will inevitably determine what we all get to listen to.

The big business question here: How big will this business become and how fast? Will podcasting turn out to be much more of an entertainment medium as compared to a news or news features medium — or are those differences still meaningful today? How much of what we are seeing now is mere prologue, as on-demand audio gets better integrated into our news and daily habits?

Along the way, we’ll explore the big existential questions, more to be asked rather than answered at this point:

  • How essential will bigness be in the future of podcasting?
  • Is the trade likely to follow the Internet’s path, with the riches and the audiences going mostly to a few players?
  • Is this a mass or a niche business?
  • Will podcasting — promising the ability to “narrowcast” programming to relatively small slices of audiences — be able to find sufficient money to pay the talent to sustain programming for smaller audience groups?
  • While a thousand flowers — actually tens of thousands — now bloom in podcasting, how many of them will find enough sustenance to survive in the longer term? Who will rise in brand consciousness, and who will fade away? How inevitable is the sort of merger-and-acquisition game still playing out in the digital media industry today?
  • In this welter of podcast startups, how will audiences come to know one new brand from another? Will discovery work by today’s word of mouth, or will Facebook take on the kind of dominant role it’s taken in news reading?
  • Given the public affairs roots of much of podcasting, how much of the medium’s future is in news and reporting — and how much is simply entertainment? The ambitious PRX-partnered one-hour weekly Reveal program stands out, as does Planet Money, which early on proved out the power of explanatory journalism with its model-innovating, Peabody Award-winning Giant Pool of Money.
  • Finally, scale inevitably drives any media business to national, if not global, markets. So how much can local media — and public media — play in the space? We can see promising growth, from L.A.’s KPCC to Oregon’s OPB, from KUT in Texas to veteran local podcaster Boston’s WBUR. How much, and how, can podcasting’s power be harnessed by local public media?

Why the boom now?

Let’s finally, here, ask the question: Why is podcasting, a more-than-a-decade-old form, blossoming now?

It’s good to remember that podcasting isn’t brand new, though it may seem like it is too many. As NPR’s Hjelm, who developed that business for WNYC says, “On-demand audio has also been part of our DNA now for almost a generation.”

Jake Shapiro, who is now launching RadioPublic, a product aiming to provide new glue within the podcasting ecosystem, reflects on the 14 years he has spent nurturing the trade. We are now moving into the “cresting third wave” of podcasting,” he told me recently.

Shapiro marks the eras like this:

  • First wave, 2004-2006: iTunes first incorporates podcasts, as Ev Williams, later to found Twitter, launches and then folds Odeo, a directory and search destination website for RSS-syndicated audio and video.
  • Second wave, circa 2008: After the iPhone’s launch, apps like Stitcher, Public Radio Player, and others start up.
  • Third wave, 2014-present: With Serial’s game-changing mainstreaming, products from NPR, WNYC, WBUR, and Radiotopia all proliferate — and a new surge of both audience and content is accompanied by new platform creation.

Today’s crest, he says, has been stoked by these cascading waves:

  • Spotify and Pandora training a generation of listeners to the riches of paid, on-demand listening.
  • Netflix and SiriusXM proving out wider subscription models.
  • The reality of the connected home and connected car (as Ford announces a 2021 fleet of self-driving cars, which will only offer more listening time.
  • The seemingly overnight development of a critical mass of talented storytellers.
  • Mobile becoming a primary access point. (Listeners now consume 71 percent of all podcasts on their phones, up from 42 percent just three years ago, Edison Research tells us.)

Add to those well-articulated causations the lowered costs of improved podcast tech, and the robotization of so much commercial radio, once an innovative medium.

There’s one more intangible. Podcasts are today’s vox populi. This third, post-Serial wave carries lots of new people ashore. In fact, as Shapiro readies his fall launch, he’s aiming not at the 57 million Americans who today consume at least a podcast a month. He wants the newbies, “the 10 million people who will start listening this year to podcasts.” Or, as his partner in podcasting adventure PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman puts it: “The bank shot for RadioPublic is the audience we don’t have.” iOS jumpstarted podcast mass listening, but many in that next cohort will be Android users.

The audience podcasting doesn’t have is a big number. Consider that, of 286 million people online in the U.S., 231 million — or 80 percent — form the potential market.

One looming question in the back of all the entrepreneurs’ minds: What will the big guys do?

If media attention is riveted on the startups, it is the big guys of audio who may determine the next phase of how podcasting will evolve. These are the brand names we all already know: Apple, SiriusXM, Spotify, Amazon, NPR.

Podcasts, an artisanal media form in development for a decade, were born again in 2012. Then, Apple made that purple Podcasts app available for iOS 6, and the new era was born. (It became installed by default with iOS 8 two years later.) Will Apple collect and share audience knowledge? Will it, too, see real money in podcasting and use its position to muscle new profits?

How much will Spotify, which added a bit more prominence to podcasts in its product this summer, move strongly into the business? The company, say podcast execs, is now in conversations with many of them.

Will SiriusXM and Spotify, each offering distinct flavors of non-podcast subscriptions, move more greatly into the mainstream podcasting business, following the lead of Audible’s just-launched subscription product?

How much will NPR, and public radio podcasting peers WNYC, WBUR, and PRX, which collectively once seemed synonymous with podcasting, move onward and upward? Or will they see the new guys encroach significantly on their turf? Leading the new (and semi-controversial) Podtrac ratings, NPR — oft-described as the 800-pound gorilla of podcasting — managed to satisfy 8 million weekly unique podcast listeners in July; its 33 programs accounted for 66 million downloads or streams. WNYC still ranks second, with PRX’s Radiotopia, WBUR, and This American Life/Serial all found in today’s top 10.

NPR’s own mission and great strength has long centered on news. Podcasting has led it much more significantly into culture and entertainment. How much of NPR’s future, then, will develop around its ancestral mission, and how much as a news/culture/entertainment organization?

In this business world, we have little idea how these whales will play will the newly born porpoises and dolphins (not to mention a few sharks). Will the whales — Apple, SiriusXM, Amazon, Spotify — dominate and determine the next phase of how podcasting will evolve? Will the newer fleet of Midroll, Gimlet, Panoply, Wondery, and PodcastOne find their own defendable habitat? A M&A winnowing of the industry seems predestined, and it might occur more rapidly than it did in digital text/video media.

At this juncture, still early in our story, it looks like the Internet underestimated the power of the human voice. In fact, it was technology — what really drives what and how we read, watch and listen — that slowed down podcasting, putting all kinds of frictions between a podcaster and a listener. Now, in this period of fast growth, we see those frictions — in usability, in discovery, in advertising, and in measurement — all receding. As they fade, it’s as if we’ve rediscovered the human voice in our digital times.

Tomorrow in Part Two: Where podcasting’s next wave of advertising growth could come from.

The research for this series was commissioned by Public Media Futures Forums, a project funded by the Wyncote Foundation to support in-depth analyses of strategic challenges facing public media. The analysis was done independently and without any foundation review.

Photo of microphones by Rusty Sheriff used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 12, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
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