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June 12, 2018, 10:23 a.m.

Grow the pie: Podcast revenue seems to be growing fast enough for everyone to get a slice

Plus: Google’s latest table-stakes move, Stuff You Should Know sets a record, and In The Dark keeps blowing up.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 164, published June 12, 2018.

Expanding pie. The Interactive Advertising Bureau has released its second annual podcast revenue study, which gives us a clear baseline on the size of the podcast ad business. Here’s the big takeaway for those on the run:

  • The American podcast industry brought in an estimated $314 million in advertising revenue in 2017, up 86 percent from the $169 million reported the year before. It beat projections established in the previous revenue study, which predicted that the ad business would grow to around $220 million in 2017.
  • That’s a pretty huge jump for podcast advertising relative to itself, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: it’s still peanuts compared to other (far older and more consolidated) media industries. Commercial radio brought in $17.6 billion in advertising last year. That’s billion with a “b” and three more digits.
  • In any case, the study further predicts that podcast advertising will hit $659 million by 2020, which will still be a fraction of what commercial radio enjoyed in 2017.

Over at Recode, the dude Peter Kafka argues that the persistent minisculity of the podcast advertising business is actually a good thing. “One of the reasons podcasts are fun to listen to is because the podcast ad business is so tiny,” he writes. “Measuring podcast audiences is still a work in progress, and there’s no good way for advertisers to automate their ad buys across lots of podcasts if that changes, you may well see podcast advertising move much faster — but it also means podcast advertising will be more unpleasant.”

To absolutely no one’s surprise, I agree with this. Kafka articulated something I’ve been trying to say whenever I’ve written about the related issue of programmatic podcast advertising — but obviously, a whole lot better than I ever could — which is to essentially point out that rapid growth, as well as the implementation of technology and practices that push hard for rapid growth, often come at the expense of quality and general thoughtfulness of a space.

I’ve come to feel about podcasting the way I’ve long felt about a certain up-and-coming city in the American inter-mountain west (which will remain nameless for reasons that will become clear): I love it a whole ton, and I love that loads more people are beginning to love it too, but maybe we should start shit-talking the place before the tourists get here and drive the market out of whack.

Anyway, Kafka also made a parallel point about how it’s not hard to make a podcast, which (rightfully) sparked some grumbles in my inbox. Obviously, that’s not true — I see you, ESJ — but I think the more important point is how podcasting remains significantly cheaper to produce compared to movies, television shows, and even good chunks of commercial talk radio programming. At this point in time, anyway. Given the influx of celebrities into the space and the way talent contract sizes are going, we might have to adjust that analytical position in the not-so distant future.

Some other odds and ends:

  • Just a reminder that the study’s methodology relies on self-reported revenues from a collection of the bigger podcast companies in the space — referred to in the report as “largest podcast advertising revenue generators which are believed to make up a significant portion of the overall market,” emphasis believed — including Gimlet Media, Midroll Media, National Public Media, Panoply, HowStuffWorks, and WNYC Studios, among others.
  • Those companies also underwrote the study, which is a point that led the framing for some writeups the last time around but is, I’m told, a fairly normal arrangement for industry revenue studies like these.
  • Anyway, because the methodology relies on self-reported revenues from a collection of companies, it should be noted that the $314 million estimate is an extrapolation from the aggregate self-reported data. You can actually find the total self-reported revenue in the study document on page 6: $257.4 million in 2017.
  • One interesting thing that falls from the methodology is the extent to which the participating publishers are positioned as the majority of the industry — roughly 80 percent. Another interesting thing to note the significance of the remaining 20 percent: Can we perhaps read that as the rough sum value of independents?
  • Pre-produced ads make up a third of all ad types among the self-reporting companies. Host-read ads making up the dominant remainder.
  • Branded podcasts grew from 1.5 percent to 6.5 percent of all ad revenue between 2016 and 2017, displaying an increasing industry reliance on the hefty ad product.
  • Weirdly, the share of automatically inserted ads — i.e. dynamically inserted ads — as a delivery mechanism dropped from 56.4 percent to 41.7 percent between 2016 and 2017. I’m personally surprised by this, and will do some digging around on the issue.
  • Finally, 56 percent of captured advertising revenue was driven by three content genres: Arts & Entertainment (16.8 percent), Technology (14.6 percent), and News, Politics & Current Events (13.3 percent). Notably, True Crime comes in at 7.2 percent and Scripted Fiction at less than 1 percent. One way to read this is to see it as the spread of where advertisers are allocating their dollars by genre. The other way is to see it as the spread of genres present within the portfolios of those participating podcast publishers.

Again, you can find the report here.

Public improvements. Pew Research has started rolling out this year’s updates to its State of the News Media report, with its public broadcasting factsheet dropping on Wednesday.

Obviously, do check the thing out in full, but here’s the big story for me:

The factsheet describes a public radio system that appears to be holding steady — perhaps sustaining the so-called Trump Bump experienced during the 2016 presidential election cycle, and even incrementally growing its average total weekly listenership. It observes that “the top 20 NPR-affiliated public radio stations (by listenership) had on average a total weekly listenership of about 11 million in 2017, up from about 10 million in 2016.”

But note how this factoid primarily focuses on the top end of the system, which tweaks the central finding into a picture of how the most-listened stations in the country have become marginally more listened to.

The fact sheet widens its scope when it attends to the question of local public radio revenues, drawing data from Mark Fuerst’s Public Media Futures Forum initiative that displays aggregate revenues for 123 of the largest news-oriented public radio licensees. Those aggregate revenue levels largely remained flat between 2014 and 2016 at a little over $800 million. (There was no 2017 number.) But even that doesn’t improve the core framing problem: it’s a broader pool, but it’s still looking at the top end of the system. For context, there are over 900 NPR member stations in the US.

It’s productive to pair Pew’s factsheet with this Current writeup on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s latest “state of the system” analysis. According to that study, while the public radio system appears to be broadly enjoying an overall trend of growth, smaller stations continue to struggle financially compared to their larger peers. Not unlike the broader media industry (and the American economy writ large, I suppose), the system may well be growing, but the gains are being felt by fewer participants.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research fact sheet found that: “At the national level, NPR increased its total operating revenue in 2017 to $233 million, up 9% from 2016 levels. APM saw gains as well, rising 33% to about $168 million in total revenue for 2017. PRI’s total revenue, on the other hand, went down 17% year over year, amounting to $18 million in 2017.”

What’s the best word to describe a situation in which a smaller number of entities begins to represent bigger swathes of a system? It’s not quite centralization…nor is it distillation, either.

Anyway, I liked how Nieman Lab framed its analysis on the Pew fact sheet: “A year after Trump’s zero-budget threat, public broadcasting is…doing okay.” I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more threats before this administration is up.

My eyes will be kept peeled for the upcoming update to the audio and podcasting factsheet, which should come out at some point over the next few weeks. I’ll write it up here when that happens.

In other public radio news…

  • This MediaPost writeup might be framed around NPR podcast’s smart speaker futures, but I’m more interested in this finding: “According to [NPM president Gina] Garrubbo, few of NPR’s podcast listeners skip sponsored messaging. In fact, 85% of listeners would prefer to listen to sponsored content rather than pay for a commercial-free version. She also noted that NPR listeners will listen to a podcast for at least an hour, or even binge listen.”
  • “WBUR Announces Retirement Of ‘Only A Game’ Host Bill Littlefield.” (WBUR)
  • Leonard Lopate returns to public radio after WNYC firing. (Current)

Standing alone. Google is apparently working on its own dedicated podcast app for Android, according to a report by 9to5Google. The article goes on to say:

We can see that the Play Store listing of this app will likely act a bit like the Assistant and Google Lens listings in the Play Store, simply acting as a shortcut to open the functionality. While that app is not live yet, it should appear on the Play Store at this link when it goes live.

The sighting comes barely a month after Google discussed its efforts to increase podcast functionality on Android through a series of interviews on the branded podcast studio Pacific Content’s corporate blog, and a few weeks after the tech giant began pushing out the feature along with subsequent minor updates.

On the one hand, neat! On the other hand, it’s much ado about table stakes. Here’s how I’m reading the situation:

  • That Google is beginning to invest more resources into podcast distribution should be cause for some excitement, but I’d temper expectations. As we’ve learned from the early efforts of Spotify (and, hell, even Google Play Music), simply making something more available within an actively used platform isn’t any guarantee of greater usage. Presence needs to be followed by some amount of Push.
  • To that end, I believe the real question lies in whether this standalone podcast app will be bundled by default with any Android iterations moving forward. After all, a good chunk of the conventional understanding about why 2014 turned out to be a tipping point for the medium revolved around Apple’s decision to package its native Podcasts app with iOS 8. It’s the little things that mean a lot, you know?
  • I also remain curious about the extent to which Google Podcasts team lead Zack Reneau-Wedeen’s strategy to bump audio up into “first-class citizenry” within Google’s mobile search universe is built on sound theoretical foundations: that you can elevate audio within Google’s search architecture in the same way you can with text and video, both being primarily visual media.
  • Of course, this is the customary point in the analysis where I begin pointing towards smart speakers and voice assistants, and the broader voice-first computing future. Though I’d just say it out loud again anyway.

Meanwhile, Apple continues to hold court as the dominant podcast platform provider. During its WWDC developer conference last week, Cupertino announced that the Apple Podcasts inventory now boasts more than 550,000 active shows, nicely complementing its April disclosure that the platform has officially surpassed 50 billion all-time podcast streams and downloads.

The company also announced that its official Podcasts app will finally be made available for the Apple Watch as part of the upcoming watchOS 5 update, scheduled for the fall. I don’t personally own an Apple Watch — lord knows it’d absolutely ruin my capacity for eye contact — but the renewed prospect of even more frictionless podcast listening is…making me reconsider my position. I hope my family will understand.

Also, congrats to Stuff You Should Know, which was announced onstage during the podcast-specific session of WWDC to be the first show to officially cross the 500 million all-time stream and download mark on the Apple Podcasts platform. The flagship podcast of the HowStuffWorks network turned a decade old earlier this year.

Extra life. Audioboom has successfully raised £4.5 million (about $6 million) to keep the lights on, marking a return to business after a failed attempt to execute a “reverse takeover” of Triton Digital left the U.K.-based podcast company in a precarious financial position. Prior to this new funding round, the company was said to have enough working capital for only four weeks of operations.

Stuart Last, the company’s chief operating officer, tells me that the new funds come from a mixture of new and current investors. He argues that the money is not a stopgap measure. “This is investment that will accelerate the growth of Audioboom,” Last said. “While there were aspects of the Triton merger that made being part of a bigger corporate entity exciting and in some ways easier, we’ve always felt we could do this independently.” The identities of the new investors were not disclosed, but you can find the list of major shareholders here. (Note that investors with holdings under 3 percent are not listed.)

For all intents and purposes, the deal with the Los Angeles-based Triton Digital was supposed to result in what is essentially a merger, despite the “reverse takeover” labeling. If it had been successful, the move would have resulted in the formation of a new company that combined Audioboom’s advertising network and creative agency with Triton Digital’s audio analytics and ad-tech services. The deal fell through mid-May when equitable terms could not be negotiated. As CEO Robert Proctor told me at the time: “Investors and institutions were not convinced and as the deal terms flexed to try and accommodate all parties then the final terms on the table were just not attractive to myself, my board or the wider Audioboom shareholder base. So it just could not be sanctioned, I’m afraid.”

Audioboom experienced cashflow issues throughout the deal-making process and subsequent breakdown, leading them to fall behind on some important processes like partner payments — a development that has hurt their standing among some of their clients. Now that it’s solvent again, the company has crucial work to do. “Since we withdrew from that deal, we’ve taken some big steps to catch-up those payments and have more than 70 shows up to day and many more on payment plans,” Last told me. “So as the money comes in from this funding round it will be a high priority to get our partners fully paid — then we can regain their trust and become a proper partner again, helping them grow, reach new audience, taking their revenues to even higher places.”

Regaining trust may prove complicated for the company, especially given some of the messaging it has been putting out over the past few weeks. In the immediate wake of the deal collapse, Audioboom told Inside Radio that, as part of its efforts to control its financial situation, it would be looking to “attract ‘more commercially viable’ podcasts and trim smaller, unsustainable podcasts.” Some viewed the statement as an indication that the company would be throwing its smaller independent partners under the bus. Last tells me that’s not the case. “Yeah, so the reference to cutting smaller shows was actually about the natural end of some of our legacy radio relationships,” he said. “We hosted and distributed thousands of podcast channels for our radio partners globally — those channels took a lot of staffing and tech resource, but provided a very small part of our income.”

He added: “We are fully committed to working with podcasters at all levels.”

Catching up is one thing; growing is another. While Audioboom is thought of as a U.K. company, I’m told that around 90 percent of Audioboom’s business actually comes from the significantly more heated U.S. market, where it competes directly with other network-centric companies like Panoply, which has a strong parent company in Graham Holdings, and Cadence13, which sold a 45 percent stake to Entercom for $9.7 million last fall. Is $6 million enough for the company to both rebuild and compete in this environment?

Year over year. ICYMI, APM Reports’ In The Dark is currently in the midst of a spectacular sophomore season. And at this point of the season, seven episodes deep and about a month out from launch, the podcast appears to be outperforming its previous season.

Speaking last Friday, a spokesperson told me:

  • As of Monday afternoon, Season 2 has been downloaded over 4 million times. At this point last season, the download number was around 2.4 million.
  • I’m also told: “Season 1 just went over 12 million downloads, and it’s in the midst of a resurgence (for obvious reasons).”

American Public Media hosts its podcast programming with StreamGuys, which touts a platform that’s IAB and Podcast Working Group-approved. The big takeaway from this item should focus on the show’s improvement upon its own past performance, as making cross-show comparisons will prove to be complicated. At this moment, there isn’t a clean way to contextualize In The Dark’s performance against comparable podcasts, but here are two data points on similar shows that can help you map the state of the limited-run true crime podcast genre in mid 2018:

  • Atlanta Monster was downloaded over 20 million times across 12 episodes within its first three months of launch. Again, In The Dark S2 was downloaded almost 4 million times within its first month, and it’s currently still publishing.
  • Dirty John was reportedly downloaded more than 7 million times across its full six-episode run within its first month of launch. It’s worth noting that Dirty John dropped all of its episodes within the span of a week. In The Dark adheres to a conventional weekly publishing schedule.

The eighth installment of Madeleine Baran’s investigation drops today.

Career spotlight. And we’re back with this recurring feature! I’ll be doing these monthly instead of bi-weekly from now on. This week, I traded emails with Ryan Kailath, a public radio reporter who has served stints at a bunch of different places. (Though, I suppose, that’s how you’d typically describe a public radio reporter.) Let’s jump in:

Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?

Kailath: Just take the cliché, bring it to life, and that’s me. I wanna work at This American Life.

More concretely: The five-year goal was to become a full-time maker of high-quality ~~narrrative loongformm~~. I didn’t expect to get there overnight, so I’ve tried to chart a course that makes me better along the way. I’m almost four years on the path now and feeling good.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Kailath: With help from literally a million generous people, I caught some early breaks. My first audio story aired on The Heart, my first NPR story went (public radio) viral, I got an internship at Planet Money, a story on 99pi.

After the internship, I wanted to report, to just have constant practice pitching and writing and interviewing and making tons of stuff day in and out. So I went the public radio route instead of assistant producer’s assistant somewhere in podcasting. Also I have a hangup — it tends to come with immigrant parents — about having “traditional” jobs and the attendant validation/permission and markers of success. But mainly I wanted to get radio buff.

So I’ve had three jobs now: daily talk show producer at KCRW, local news reporter at WWNO (New Orleans Public Radio), and Marketplace reporter, where I just wrapped up a yearlong contract.

Every job, I’ve chased good editors above all. It’s the key ingredient; I don’t know how else you get better. And when my editors are stretched thin, I’ve leaned on my peers. I have a crew of ~10 trusted radio friends who, whenever one of us needs an edit, or to talk through a pitch or we’re drowning in tape, we just throw up the bat signal and whoever’s available hops on a call to discuss. They save my life, like, once a week.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Kailath: As Marketplace wound down last month, I decided to give the dream a shot: go hard pitching longform to my favorite shows. I’ve spent three years in news mode, where the goals and milestones are pretty different from what I set out to do, and I think I’ve developed some tunnel vision.

But I don’t know — opportunities have knocked, and it’s hard to sniff at a salary and benefits…we’ll see. Also, re: longform, I’m pretty scared of trying and failing, which is a distinct possibility. I have working hard on my side, but a lot of the longformers I admire are just more talented than me, I think.

At some point I think I’ll have to cut bait from public radio though; no amount of 4-minute news features will prepare me to do what TAL does. To do what they do, I have to practice doing what they do, somehow.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?

Kailath: I’m not sure I understand the question, but I feel incredibly lucky to have found this one. This is my second career; I was in tech (working for nonprofits and political orgs.) and switched to radio at age 31. I feel like I finally, finally found the thing I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m just so grateful. Not everyone gets to have that in life, so it’s humbling.

Hot Pod: How do you view the podcast industry at this point in time?

Kailath: I have a glib line about how I’m so f*cking sick of podcasts right now, which usually gets a laugh (occasionally a sob). But the truth is I’m still so excited by the good things. Chompers was so brilliant I’m overjoyed at the very thought of it. It’s the same feeling I got in my twenties when I’d find some band making what felt like an all-new kind of music. Sleepover and Scott Carrier and This is Love and so many others. I was giddy when they announced Wolverine.

But you asked about the industry. It’s good. I’m glad it exists. I’m glad people are getting paid. I’m glad WNYC is paying interns (shout out Mickey Capper). And I’m glad for all the new shows — especially the ones that aren’t for me. Great! Let there be shows for everyone under the sun.

You know, in public radio, it’s like all the young guns are waiting for the old guard to step aside, so they can finally be in charge, finally make radio they way they think it should be made. In podcasting, nobody has to wait. For better or for worse : )

Thanks, buddy. You can find Ryan on Twitter here.

Bites:

  • Turns out that Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant’s ZigZag isn’t the only Civil-affiliated podcast. Last week saw the introduction of FAQ NYC, a weekly podcast that will “ask and answer thoughtful questions about how — and why — New York City works.” (Civil)
  • ESPN announced a partnership with the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) and the Made in NY Media Center to develop a pitch program around its 30 for 30 Podcasts. (Press release)
  • WNYC’s Women’s Podcast Festival is back in New York this November. Registration is now open. (WNYC Studios)
  • Very, very glad to see that Binge Mode Original Recipe is back in my feed! (The Ringer)
  • “In chronicling the disintegration of his own mental faculties, Dennis Miller has created a postmodern spectacle like no other. By collapsing every pop-culture item he misremembers into one all-encompassing Reference, which somehow refers to everything and nothing at once, Miller has created the greatest podcast of all time.” (The Outline)
  • “On the Radio, It’s Always Midnight.” (The Paris Review)
  • I’ve updated my “Best Podcasts of 2018 (So Far)” list with May entries. (Vulture)
POSTED     June 12, 2018, 10:23 a.m.
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