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Sept. 13, 2018, 9:30 a.m.

Podcast shakeup! Panoply, iHeartMedia, Stuff, and…Malcolm Gladwell? are all making industry moves

Are these moves a harbinger of consolidation, a healthy restructuring for a rapidly growing industry, or something else entirely?

It’s been a tumultuous 24 hours in the podcast business!

First, late yesterday afternoon, our own Nick Quah broke via his newsletter the news that Panoply — the Slate-born podcast network that had been tightly connected with the newsier, more public-radio-y end of that business — was getting out of the content business altogether.

Several sources in the company inform me that, earlier this afternoon, the company internally announced that it will no longer be developing new podcasts and that it will be letting go of its entire editorial staff. I’m told that the layoffs are effective starting the end of the month.

The company also announced that it will now shift its operational focus to the Megaphone targeted marketing platform — that is, Panoply’s podcast hosting, analytics, and monetization technology, which it acquired in the summer of 2015 and, more recently, forged a partnership with Nielsen to build a marketplace for targeted podcast ads…

Prior to this point, Panoply, a sister company of Slate, was your standard end-to-end podcast company. It produced original shows (like The Message, Empire of Blood, Family Ghosts, and By the Book) and handled ad sales for a portfolio of podcasts. It also helped produce and monetize existing shows like You Must Remember This. In its earlier days, the company pursued a content strategy that heavily involved production partnerships with external publications like Politico and Tablet Magazine, and has since shifted to focus more on original programming.

Panoply had not been known as, well, one of the more stable podcast companies, but the move was pretty shocking given that it was busy announcing its new fall show lineup just a week ago:

After Nick’s story went out, Panoply CEO Brendan Monaghan got back to him with a comment:

After much consideration, Panoply has decided to focus solely on our growing podcast hosting and ad services business, and exit the podcast content business. Our editorial staff was notified of the change today. They are an amazingly talented and creative group of people, and we will miss working with them.

Happily, some of Panoply’s producers and shows will be moving to our sister company Slate. The last day for most staff editorial staff members will be Sep. 28, although some will continue working on projects for a limited time after that…

Our main goal in this reorganization is to reinforce Megaphone’s position as the clear leader in podcasting technology and advertising services, and every person at the company will be laser focused on creating tools to help podcasters thrive.

I’m privy to no particular insight on Panoply, and I never like it when anyone gets out of the content business. But in any young industry there are significant opportunities to be had at the infrastructure-building, tool-providing level, and apparently Panoply thought its offerings were more differentiated there than in the hit-or-miss original content game. That doesn’t do much for the people and shows affected by the move, of course:

Folks across the way at Slate made sure to note that their podcasts weren’t impacted by the move. Those include shows like The Gist, Slow Burn, Trumpcast, and the various Gabfests:

But there was some Slate/podcast news that was oddly timed with the Panoply shift: Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg announced he was leaving to start…a new podcast company with Malcolm Gladwell:

The Gladwell show Revisionist History was a Panoply production. And Broken Record was announced as a Panoply production just last week.

With barely enough time to digest all that news, here comes more news! The Wall Street Journal reports that radio giant iHeartMedia — f.k.a. Clear Channel — is buying Stuff Media, producer of popular podcasts like How Stuff Works and Atlanta Monster, for $55 million.

“Podcast is to talk what streaming is to music,” said [iHeartMedia CEO Bob] Pittman in an interview. “It’s very critical to us and very strategic.”

As part of the agreement, Stuff Media CEO Conal Byrne will join iHeart and lead its entire podcast division…

Last month, public-radio companies PRX and PRI agreed to merge in a bid to capitalize on podcasts.

Mr. Pittman said the deal was aimed at beefing up iHeartMedia’s existing podcasting business, which already has an audience of more than 5.6 million monthly listeners, according to podcasting-analytics firm Podtrac.

The acquisition increases iHeart’s lead among a group of publishers in terms of audience, though it still trails No. 1 NPR. iHeart, which already hosts more than 750 original podcasts and carries over 20,000 on its app, is the top commercial podcast publisher.

(Note that there are plenty of problems with Podtrac’s rankings.)

Is this a classic case of legacy media (iHeart) buying into its digital disruptor (podcasting), à la the investments of companies like Comcast, Hearst, Time Warner investing into digital natives like BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and Mic? Or something less positive, a sign of further shakeouts in an industry that, while far more structured than in its loosey-goosey early days, is still relatively decentralized? We’ll find out eventually.

Photo of Malcolm Gladwell at Pop!Tech 2008 by Kris Krüg used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 13, 2018, 9:30 a.m.
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