Coping with Podcasting’s Bubble

I’ve been trying to sit down and write some predictions for 2022 since before Christmas, but a bit of a writer’s block has taken over. I think, for most audio operators, this year will be about trouble-shooting and consolidating. Like most of the world post-COVID, people just trying to get their shit together will be work enough.

That’s not to say there won’t be some splashy acquisitions, some talent acrobatics and some tech innovations, I just think for most people at the coal face, trying to build a credible business around the new opportunities in audio, particularly podcasting, will require a renewed focus.

I’m fortunate to have lots of conversations with audio folk and many are grappling with what they’re “supposed” to do around podcasting. There’s two broad groups. The first is pro-bubble. These people know there’s somewhat of a bubble in audio, particularly podcasting at the moment – and their strategy is to embrace that, try and build out scale at pace – and then get out whilst valuations are high, and unconnected to whether what they’re doing is sustainable. Others think there’s a bubble and whilst there will likely be a correction, the general growing use and revenue will usher in a new audio-consumer sector. The view being that the bubble will actually be the new market. If they’re still around after that, they’ll be in a good position.

Others are trying to cope with the existence of the bubble and all of its effects, whilst trying to ignore it and build more regular businesses – ie ones that make some money. These again are split into two groups. The first are existing broadcasters and publishers. The problem is, it is virtually impossible for a regular media business to look at the podcast investment case and justify the required costs to ‘do it properly’.

Let’s take the sector I’m closest to, radio. As I’ve mentioned before, commercial radio in the UK is very efficient. It’s got relatively high profit margins and has generally pretty manageable talent costs, in front of and behind the mic. Indeed, outside of the biggest on-air talent, radio companies are paying the internet people far more than the audio people. Strange, but it’s the radio parts of the business that they’re super-comfortable with and knowledgable about. They know exactly what they can spend to get what they need, and audio talent has always wanted to work for these radio companies – excellent leverage to have. On the internet-side meanwhile, developers and such, are employees who put little value on where they work, and can happily move across any sector, providing price competition for their skills.

Today, if you want to be a radio DJ on a station/network of any scale, there isn’t much flexibility, of course not helped by there only being four main radio station operators in the country. Many radio presenters have somewhat stomached the guidelines and wages of their radio jobs, and supplemented it with other work. It’s similar for production talent too. Radio companies have historically benefited from this seller’s market.

When these radio companies look at podcast production talent costs, the lack of many on-mic talent wanting to give up control and the difficulty of establishing new shows, they scratch their heads and look fondly at their radio transmitters.

I pick radio, but it’s the same conversation with other content publishers. Do they all know that on-demand audio is a massive opportunity? Yes. Do they know that the business model will eventually catch-up? Yes. Can they get buy-in internally to deliver the scope of change necessary? Er, not so much.

I think it’s telling how many media employees choose not to do podcast projects with the media companies that employ them. I think it shows that the talent relationship is often one-sided with the company unable to think about their teams as more than suppliers to deliver their own projects.

I don’t think, in most cases, this is even malicious. It’s just the mindset driven from the success of their heritage business. The danger is that this puts them way behind the new entrants, without this baggage, when these media companies really should have all the relationship advantages.

It’s perhaps no surprise that many talent-led podcasts are now incubated by the agents or management teams of celebrities. They have a history of being joint-venture partners with their talent, they need to be ensure they get their 15%! But often the manager relationship is a pretty deep one, the trust that’s built up from the work managers have done to help talent’s careers, puts them in a great position to develop new businesses with them.

The idea of “we must be the ones to disrupt our own business” often gets a glib eyebrow raise or is regarded as a somewhat hackneyed phrase. If a media company’s corporate strategy is to embark on success in a new market, it’s essential that attitudes and structure are re-evaluated to make that able to happen. And that’s difficult when it’s at such odds with where success has historically come from.

Many companies find the only way to do this is to set up new units. It can be successful, but often falls prey to political in-fighting or budget battles. In a large corporation, that can be hard to win when you’re haemorrhaging cash whilst trying to build something new.

New companies and start-ups in the audio space also face challenges. For those in podcasting, who don’t have the resources to embrace bubble-like growth, they face the challenge of competing, whilst still trying to be a business with a road to profitability. This is tough whilst the bubble-embracers have seemingly endless cash and the media companies have a strong balance sheet and a variety of routes to market for their product.

For me, it’s essential that these companies are specialists or occupy a specific topic, or vertical. Trying to be a generalist podcasting firm, in an accelerating market, would seem a challenging place to be. For specialist firms, building audiences around a subject would seem to provide greater opportunities in and around podcasting – whether that’s events, publishing or other digital content. It doesn’t stop you putting podcasts at the heart of what you do, but it does provide opportunities to broaden revenue if the goal is medium-term profitability.

I also think being in a vertical gives you some broader potential exit opportunities, allowing you to swim with other companies in your topic, as well as other podcast businesses who are after more scale.

Overall though, the companies that will do well in the podcast space are those that either have a lot of money, or the ones that have real focus and drive. Both probably need a decent helping of luck too.

How will companies tackle podcasting in 2022 (6 minute read)

Tell Me Your Predictions

I was thinking about what to write next week and thought that maybe I’d do some predictions about audio for 2022. Then I thought, actually, why not have some predictions from the over 1,000 people who get the newsletter each week.

So, my question to you is: What will be the key themes for radio, podcasting and/or streaming be next year?

Maybe you think it’ll all be about pivoting to video, perhaps everything will be subscriptions or you think we’ll see a new entry in the streaming market? Whatever it is, macro, micro or meta, I’d love to hear about it, and I’ll try and include as many next week. Serious or fun is fine too!

These predictions can be anonymous (I know some of you work for companies that aren’t a fan of their teams talking) or include your company/project and I’ll give it a mention. Just tell me either way in the email.

You can email me – matt@mattdeegan.com – with your predictions.

Hope you have a great Christmas and New Year, and if a latty-flow or PCR has put paid to much mixing, then I hope at least you have a rejuvenating break.

Thanks for being a subscriber this year, the fact you are there, and open these emails, is what makes me write them in each week.

Matt.

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I was thinking about what to write next week and thought that maybe I’d do some predictions about audio for 2022. Then I thought, actually, why not have some predictions from the over 1,000 people who get the newsletter each week. So, my question to you is: What will be the key themes for radio, podcasting and/or streaming be next year?

Global’s Tech Acquisitions

Global announced yesterday the acquisition of Captivate a UK-based podcast hosting company. It’s their second recent purchase, after they snapped up Remixd in October.

As I talked about last month, tech acquisitions in the audio space somewhat outstrip those in the content field. The reason? Tech buy-outs help fill gaps for large companies who want to ‘own the whole stack’ of their tech infrastructure or do something that allows them to grow market share.

Captivate definitely fills a hole, as Global have lacked their own platform for managing the hosting of their podcasts. Up to now they mainly seem to have been using Spreaker, which was acquired by Voxnest, which was snaffled by iHeartMedia last year.

Global have been focused on growing out their digital audio advertising business – DAX, which like most ad-insertion companies can inter-op with different hosting companies. However, it always seemed strange that when a podcast was managed by the company, they were bounced into using Spreaker.

Bringing that technology in-house allows them to fully integrate DAX and tighten the relationship between ads and content. It also removes a point of failure out of the chain. It’s much easier to fix some internal technology than have to jump through hoops with a third party, particularly one whose parent company you’re probably a competitor of.

Captivate have done a pretty good job on their own up-to-now, with 14,000 shows hosted on the platform. Some recent data shows that they have a share of 2.4% of new podcast episodes published.

The challenge for stand-alone hosting companies is that as shows get bigger they’re likely to migrate to the platforms that sell their ads. Podnews tracks these movements where you can see that the move to free hosting provided by Spotify’s Anchor is strong, alongside the moves to Megaphone and Acast, which have monetisation built in.

For hosting companies that charge, like Captivate, the challenge remains to onboard new customers faster than you lose them, and to balance the bandwidth charges and product investment to keep making a profit.

With a move to Global, they need worry less about the cashflow, but also will now be in a position to offer advertising opportunities for their customers with DAX, providing some further stickiness for their product. It’s also good news for Global as they can expand their pool of inventory. It’s not dissimilar from Spotify using its Megaphone acquisition to rep third-party inventory alongside its originals.

Global also get to bend the Captivate product to meet the needs of both their in-house and repped customers.

DAX has been spending some time over the past couple of years owning the end to end technology around digital audio. It’s streaming ad platform was originally built on top of Adswizz’s server, that’s now been replaced by their own in-house tech and Captivate gives them another chunk of the tech stack.

Remixd, similar to the New York Times Audm acquisition, brings Global and DAX to another audio product – converting text articles to the spoken word. Click play on this Remixd delivered article on the TechRadar website to see how it sounds. It works by publishers pinging their article feeds to these services and back comes an MP3 to be added to a site’s play button (or podcast feed etc). Remixd is standard text to speech, whilst Audm has the articles read by a narrator.

Good text-to-speech is actually pretty easy to do nowadays, especially if you use a service like Amazon’s Polly. Polly charges around 3 cents per article for standard voice, and 10 cents for its more natural version.

Why Global’s interested in Remixd is that combining it alongside DAX allows publishers to monetise these feeds with DAX’s audio ads, so new money for them and a new potential inventory pool for Global.

I think the jury’s still out on whether consumers want to press play on articles, but as a publisher having your content in a different format can certainly increase the opportunities of what you can do with it.

Global’s two acquisitions again show the direction of travel for companies in the audio sector to consolidate technology and develop scale – putting them in a better place to compete.

AOB

There’s a new episode of the Media Podcast out. This time we’re talking about the likely future cuts coming to the BBC, what happened at the British Journalism Awards and the Guardian hitting 1m subs without a paywall. Excellent guests include The Times’ media correspondent Jake Kanter, journalist and comedian Suchandrika Chakribarti and The Week founder Jon Connell. Listen here.

Mine and David Madelin’s little side project Podfollow has hit 20million click thrus this month. Podfollow provides a free link for podcasters to put on social that opens up Apple Podcasts for iOS users, Google Podcasts/Spotify for Android and websites/landing pages for Desktop users. There’s stats built in, and it’s great to see so many people using it including NewsCorp, Bauer, Sky, The Athletic and more. Check it out at podfollow.com.

Why have Global grabbed Captivate and Remixd? (4min read)

On or Off Platform?

The key tension with most audio companies I meet is the worry of whether they should try and get consumers on their own platform vs maximising reach by distributing content far and wide. Indeed, probably the biggest response I’ve had to a blog post touched on that issue when I mused about the challenge of podcast exclusives.

In Succession there’s a scene where the boss of the successful tech company says to Roman Roy something along the lines of “sometimes I just open your streaming app to see how long it takes to load”. The fact the traditional media business can’t get its act together is deemed an accurate enough trope to include in a mainstream TV drama.

The problem for the Roys (like many media companies) is that they play at being tech companies, but it just isn’t in their skillset.

There’s two ways to get traction in app/service.

Make it genuinely good so that people want to use it.

Find ways to force them to use it, even against their better judgement.

In the media sector, successful apps have access to great content, with an enjoyable UX and have a brand that users want to align themselves with. They generally are not just utilities.

A consumer’s choice between Apple Music, Spotify or Tidal says something about them. Even though they deliver a similar product. Netflix’s position in the market is of course partly due to its content, but the fact many of its big shows are re-runs of 90s and 00s comedies show that its success is broader than just what you consume on it.

The problem for many media company audio apps is that they clone poorly the existing features of the market-leading apps, they shoe-horn in a webview rather than native material, and the ‘special’ content may be voluminous, but it is rarely premium.

Where there is the occasional something special – a concert, a series – it lives locked in the app, a tax on the consumer’s actual interest.

Really, it’s perverse that they make it difficult for consumers to get the stuff they actually care about or remember the brand for.

The other thing I think audio brands get wrong is that they think of their content as must-have, when for most people, lots of it is replaceable by something else. A dance music stream, or an interview with a popstar is not a Squid Game or a Mandalorian.

Because of this, most audio apps end up being a subset of their broadcast users, rather than a product that genuinely reaches outside to new people.

Successful apps are brands with high utility – genuinely solving a problem for a user – and delighting them along the way.

A white-labelled dating service shoved into an app with a branded logo will never be a competitor to Tinder. Getting the team to make some videos and buying in some content will never compete with TikTok. Some radio stations and podcasts put together is unlikely to make much of a dent against Spotify.

The true test is how many people audio companies have working on these apps and services? The bosses may have high hopes for these operations, but where is the talent and money in their business put? What percentage goes into the new hero product?

Apps are not successful through luck alone. If your good content is available via broadcast (and syndication), combining that with some average additional content churned out by too few people will never be enough.

For many heritage audio companies, the problem with the digital world is that on the face of it, it makes no sense. They have existing, successful businesses, with good margins that are super-efficient. They apply, what they see, as the appropriate spending based on the actual returns. The result is too few developers and too few ‘digital’ content people able to make anything that’s truly impressive.

The issue is that the new entrants aren’t playing by old media rules. Spotify, today, is a really poor business. It generally loses money and is making wild acquisitions that will be difficult to break-even from. It’s using good-will, momentum and IPO cash to build a business for tomorrow. It’s a ploy that’s served Netflix well too. They spent billions of dollars on content, building up a large debt, to get them into a position where their model worked. Disney has torpedoed successful businesses – syndication and channels – to put Disney+ at the heart of what they do.

In my mind, audio companies have two options.

Go big.

If they truly want their platform to be bigger than their current audience, rather than jut a subset of it, then they need to work out how to find the money to play with the big boys and really invest in content and development. Merely forcing their existing consumers to pay their app tax is not something likely to create a successful platform.

Properly double-down on existing consumers

Radio groups, for example, have good relationships with many of their existing listeners. Instead of providing a thin amount of additional content, find ways to provide deeper connections. Make ‘premium’ the relationship, rather than the content. Unlock every reason why a listener likes your brand and find ways to extend that in-app.

There is little reason to fight Spotify (or Netflix) on their own turf. Of course you will lose that battle. Surely the trick is to find something that’s genuinely special which only you can deliver?

NYT

I’m interested in the new New York Times audio app they’ve started testing. It combines their podcasts with some great archives (Serial and This American Life) alongside spoken word versions of articles from the paper and a decent number of similar sorts of publications too. Plus there’s a layer of curation that highlights new and archive based on what’s happening now.

It all sounds very NYT-ish. Elements of this are available in the popular podcast apps, but the different content types, and the packaging is very on-brand and unique. Who knows if it will work, but it’s more sensible than just say, creating their own podcast app, that leans towards promoting their own content.

Also, I dare say, it solves a problem for consumers, particularly fans of the NYT, giving them high quality, curated and fresh news, information and features in audio-form.

If any of the existing audio apps from media companies disappeared tomorrow, how many users would truly miss out on that much?

How can media companies build a successful audio app?

Comparing Audio in Different Countries

As regular readers may know, I love a good bit of research. In the audio space there’s one piece that towers over the others – the Infinite Dial. First published in the US in 1998, the Infinite Dial started asking questions that many audio practitioners didn’t realise were important – about changing listening behaviour and this thing called the ‘internet’.

In the first report a lot of the analysis concerns things that were important issues of the time (should we have a website?, do listeners want track and artist names displayed?), but there’s the odd nugget that hinted at a changing future:

Radio’s average time spent listening among those not online is 22 hours 45 minutes a week. Radio’s time spent listening among those online is nearly three hours less, 20 hours per week.

It was probably one of the first times radio people heard that those listeners who were engaging with the expansive content on the internet, changed how they listened to the good old wireless.

Today, much of the value of the Infinite Dial is that they’ve often used the same questions over 20 years of studies, producing a true tracking of listener behaviour.

The study has been replicated in many other markets, but it’s taken until this year (and some cash from partners Bauer and Spotify) to reproduce the survey in the UK. Whilst it doesn’t have the year-on-year comparisons that America has, it can now though compare similar questions asked to listeners in the US, Canada and Australia.

The Data

To me there are few bits information that stem from the core insight – Brits. Love. Audio.

The first is how strong linear radio is. 81% of those surveyed said they had listened to any form of radio (broadcast or online) in the last week. This compares to 79% in Australia, 70% in Canada and just 59% in the US.

My assumption is this strength in the UK comes from there being a public broadcaster of scale (in the BBC), a competitive commercial sector, and – through the DAB journey – a commitment to creating high-quality, content-rich new radio stations. I think some similar reasoning shows why Australia is strong too.

Anyone can throw up a jukebox stream, but the UK has invested in radio content, so that the 50-odd new national radio stations provide choice and quality, with presenters, production and speech content. Taken together, the sector has done a good job (compared to other countries) and making sure the radio ‘product’ is of high quality. It’s not the same in many other countries.

Secondly, the choice through digital radio – for all ages – from 1Xtra to Boom Radio – and a multi-platform strategy that’s put them on lots of devices – has also pump primed UK ears to be open to more new audio types. The data shows that monthly listening to podcasts is at at 41%, which ties the US (a market that is generally though of as ‘ahead’ on podcasting) and is stronger than Canada at 38% and Australia at 36%.

We don’t, however, listen to podcasts in the same ferocity yet as other countries, the weekly podcast listening figure is 25% in the UK, compared to 23% in Canada, 26% in Australia and 29% in the US.

Finally, the weekly reach online listening number – this combines listening to the radio online along with any streamed content – is once again, very strong, with 66% of the UK, that’s two-thirds of the country, consuming online audio in some form, each week. This matches the same number in Australia and beats both the US (at 62%) and Canada (at 61%).

What all of this shows is that the UK market is pretty well educated about digital audio, they use it (or at least sample it) and have integrated it into their listening habits. For established operators – with routes to large numbers of people – there’s a great opportunity to bring new material to consumers and increase the amount of time they spend with them. For new operators, there is a large, but still growing market, ready to consume digital audio if its high quality and marketed well.

There’s a lot more data online from Edison Research’s Infinite Dial, on their website.

Podcast Awards

I’m also fortunate to compare different markets through my involvement in podcast awards in different territories. After the success of the British Podcast Awards, we were asked to help run the secretariat for the Australian Podcast Awards, which had its ceremony on Thursday night.

It was a great event, with some brilliant winners that you should definitely check out. Just like in radio, the Australian podcast market is very competitive, with a public broadcaster, existing media operators branching out, new entrants and of course radio companies. The interplay between the commercial radio companies has meant a much greater push into podcasts than we see here in the UK. With a mix of radio stars, commissioned work and repping from all the big networks. Similar to the UK, Acast are making a strong push for stand-alone creators and Spotify are creating an interesting slate of Originals too.

We’ve also made another move with our awards caravan – this time to Ireland, announcing last week the Irish Podcast Awards. Since we’ve been doing the British awards we’ve had lots of requests about involving Irish podcasts in the ceremony. Rather than combine the two, we though it better to create something alongside Irish podcasters and companies, specifically for that market.

The reason companies and individuals podcast is really varied, we think that’s why there’s rarely associations created in countries that bring everyone together. The participants are probably too broad in their objectives to find the sort of common ground you might get in other sectors like radio or television. Awards, however, can be a meeting point, an independent one, that just champions creativity and helps grow awareness for great shows (from anyone). We’re really excited to be working with a vibrant and growing Irish podcast sector to help them create something brilliant. You can sign up to the mailing list for more information.

How similar and different are we to our audio neighbours? (5min read)

What Can Audio Learn from MrBeast’s Video Success?

Anyone in the audio space – radio stations, podcasts, playlists, audiobooks – are in the content business, creating material that hopefully excites and delights, or even just keeps people listening.

The competition is no longer a battle between stations, it’s a fight for consumer’s time. Staying front of mind means the core product needs to be good, but then there also has to be noise on the right mix of other platforms too.

In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings declared the streamer’s biggest competitor was, in fact, sleep.

For all content creators, the need to innovate has never been so important. Just because something was successful in the past, doesn’t mean it will be successful today. The problem isn’t that that thing isn’t good any more, it’s that the world can change around it, leaving those good ideas behind.

Younger audiences, in particular, have a huge amount of content created for them on platforms like TikTok and YouTube and more importantly, or worryingly, the content and style evolves at a breakneck speed. It iterates. Fast.

Someone that’s pushed on the kind of videos that are working well on YouTube is MrBeast. Around a year ago I talked about his push into fast-food, utilising dark kitchens, but today it’s about his bread and butter – producing new content for YouTube.

Notionally he’s a vlogger, but most of his videos are challenges with real people, usually with cash prizes. It’s worked out pretty well, delivering him over 80m subscribers. It’s an engaged audience too, with his videos averaging 40m views soon after release.

For his latest video he decided to recreate the Netflix smash Squid Game (but without the killing). In the TV show 456 people compete, to the death, across a number of child-like games, with the last person standing getting 45.6bn South Korean Won (about £28m).

MrBeast decided to recruit 456 fans to recreate the game. One of which would end up with $456,000 (and all participants would get at least $2k for taking part).

The video is a mammoth production, which he spent around $2m on, along with around $1.5m in prizes for the contestants.

His uniqueness in the YouTube market is about spending huge amounts of cash (and effort) on his videos. The result is that in the past 30 days (across all of his channels he’s generated around 930million views).

The Squid Game videos alone has generated 114m (at the time of writing) – that’s around the same number of views that the original Squid Game TV series got on Netflix.

Overall his videos have generated nearly 20bn views. Radio 1 is Britain’s most successful radio station YouTube channel. It’s done (a still impressive) 4.5bn over 15 years across its two channels. Capital’s managed 2.8bn over the last 11 years. MrBeast will hit that number in around three months.

His Youtube journey is quite an interesting one (from 13!). He did a few years of Minecraft videos, evolving into Call of Duty. He then found a little bit of success doing videos about other YouTubers (How much does Pewdiepie make?!). Then about five years ago he started getting 1m view videos orbiting around tricks, challenges and money. Around three years ago he found his formula of high concept stunts and cash prizes and hasn’t looked back.

The Squid Game video is an amazing production, both in ambition and in delivery. However, for me, it’s the decisions they made around length and distribution that’s the most fascinating. It’s one, 25minute-long video.

If I’d been making it, I would have focused on maximising views. There would have been a trailer and I would have split the games up into five videos. We would have found out more about the contestants and why they wanted the money etc. And all of that would have probably been wrong.

Watching MrBeast’s effort, it cracks along at a YouTube-like pace, with speedy explanations and jump cuts that hop straight into the action. Even with all the work and effort – including the $2m-set he built, one video’s enough. He captures the zeitgeist and moves on. There’s no need to drag out. There will be another hit along shortly.

There are some people who say he’s just doing what a TV show would do, but for an audience that doesn’t watch TV. I think that’s a very simplistic view. The grammar of what he’s creating is very different to television. The claim that “kids don’t have long attention spans” is rubbish. They have differing attention spans based on the material. They are more than happy to binge-watch a show for hours on Netflix, or spend three hours on a video-game. They are just not willing to spend an hour on something where the core entertainment can be delivered in a few minutes.

Part of the success of TikTok is the distillation of a short-entertaining ‘bit’, algorithmically scored, fired at users one after an other. You can see why a teenager would, rightly, think a lot of entertainment television is long and drawn out.

The challenge for all traditional media, is content like this raises the bar – both in style and substance. Radio has always done what many of MrBeast’s videos has done – jumping on a popular idea and embracing it with a fun build. To keep the cut-through necessary to compete, particularly at the younger end, will be more of a challenge.

Podcasts

Building brands around content – whatever the primary platform – is a focus for many media operations. Historically podcasts have been a bit late to this game, especially with their video output.

I think this is especially crazy as so much ‘podcast’ content, particularly for younger audiences, is consumed on YouTube. Most of Joe Rogan’s audience initially came from people watching his podcast on the YouTube channel. YouTube, as a platform, remains ridiculously high when consumers are asked which way they listen to podcasts. Even if it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of content Spotify has.

YouTube themselves have noticed this, and expect them to make a big push into the podcast space proper, next year.

I’ve always been a fan of the efforts James Barr and Dan Hudson have made around their podcast A Gay and a NonGay. The genesis of the show is that the two became acquaintances though Dan’s girlfriend Talia, who had James as one of her best friends. When Talia took a job in America, they started doing a podcast together exploring gay, and non-gay life from their Gay and a NonGay perspectives.

The two of them have worked in radio for a long time. Dan as a producer at the BBC, James as a presenter on a number of stations and now Hits Radio breakfast. So they know what they’re doing, and there’s been some production-infused story-lining behind their development.

It’s impressive though that they’ve created a mini media brand in the LGBTQ+ space, and as well as the podcast there’s been touring too. They have, however, just released a 40min documentary on Radio 1’s iPlayer channel – Sashay to Hell – where James is dropped into Dan’s world of heavy metal at a weekend festival.

As well as a great doc, it does a really good job of highlighting their relationship and the Gay and a NonGay brand. It’s a great build for what they’ve been doing. They have also clearly invested in their Instagram, broadening it out from plugs to covering broad LGBTQ + topics, news and memes.

There’s a great opportunity for podcasts to expand the scope of what they’re doing, to make better use of the platforms at their disposal. As the media market gets ever busier, working at achieving cut through becomes more and more essential.

AOB

A new episode of The Media Podcast has dropped. Joining me on the show is Press Gazette’s Charlotte Tobitt and Great Scott Media’s Leon Wilson. We talk Daily Mail, podcast telly conversions, Rugby on C4, Talk TV, Buzzfeed and more. Listen and subscribe here.

How content creators need to iterate their content and delivery (7min read)

Making Your Audio Business Acquirable

Spotify’s CEO, Paul Vogel, appeared at the MIT Sloan CFO Summit last week, setting out Spotify’s stall: “We want to be the No. 1 global streaming audio player, and that means having everything as much as you could possibly think in audio”.

He also casually mentioned that it “has $3.5 billion in cash on its balance sheet available for expansion” and that acquisitions “lead to user growth, better engagement, more time span and a higher lifetime value. We can invest a lot in things — we want to take risks.” It’s most recent acquisition was audiobook platform Findaway, which I talked about last week.

He was pretty bullish on podcasting:

“What you’ve seen over time, particularly in the media space, is people try to use old paradigms to understand where the business and markets are going…. the opportunity is limitless, [only] limited by your imagination”.

“Podcasting was this business that for 20 years didn’t change — it was a simple RSS feed — no way to do anything different,” he then went on to talk about the things that the company’s been doing to change that.

Spotify’s been one of the more aggressive acquirers, but there’s been plenty of purchases – small and large – as the big companies look to fill gaps in their strategies.

As we know, audio’s been around a long time – but the combination of smart-phones, ubiquitous connectivity, successful large-scale distribution of music or other audio content, plus established audio ad networks and subscription platforms – has meant the battle is now less about technology and more about attention.

Consumers, at the touch of a button, can join one of many ecosystems that can be (relatively) easily monetised by these large operators. Plus it’s a growing market. As Vogel says:

“In the next five to 10 years there’ll be 3 to 4 billion smartphone enabled devices — why shouldn’t every one of those phones have a streaming audio app on it? And if they’re going to have a streaming audio app, let’s make ours the best.” 

As well as consumers, Spotify’s trying to become the place for creators. Vogel again: “What we want to become is the best platform for creators to create and distribute their art. Whether that’s music, whether that’s podcasting, whether that’s anything else, if you come to Spotify and we make it easier for you, we help you monetise, and we help you get discovered, you’re going to want to work with us more.”

Spotify’s seen much success on the podcast side by locking in exclusive distribution with big name creators, as well as providing an easy on-ramp for new creators on its Anchor platform. If these activities generate holes in other providers’ catalogues, then all the better.

UK Acquisitions

Few UK have companies have been targets in this audio shopping spree. One reason is undoubtedly that it’s more difficult for large US operations to devolve M&A decisions to these fine shores. Things that don’t fit in the prism of US thinking end up being a harder lift. Having to translate what sort of company you are and to explain your relevance to those unfamiliar, is an added tax on any dealmaking.

In fast-growing, cash-rich companies the options are to build or to buy. Building is perfectly achievable, and there’s money to do it, it just takes time. Companies that are growing through acquisitions want short-cuts to achieve their aims.

Often UK firms lack the scale to make much of an impact. Their size means that they don’t instantly solve a problem for a big acquirer.

Where small transactions do happen, it’s usually about acquiring talent. Acqui-hiring. With these purchases, it’s less about scale and more about filling out teams with bright people who can help an internal build go faster. There may be some special tech that can be adapted, but you’re really grabbing the people that can make your thing it happen.

Audio acquisitions can be broadly split into content or technology (particularly ad-tech). The tech’s important as it often acts as the plumbing to deliver greater goals. Being able to deploy something that works, at an acquirers scale, definitely ticks the box of short-cutting internal development.

On the content-side, acquirers have been after scale and impact. Spotify’s grab of Gimlet and Parcast, and later the Ringer and Joe Rogan has given it advertising impact heft. Something it can then better monetise by aligning (the acquired) Megaphone and Spotify’s in-house team. Amazon have run a similar play with Wondery, exclusives like SmartLess and its (acquired) distribution and sales outfit, Art 19.

The UK lacks similar content networks of scale, with many indie-publishers either having a single big show, some scale but it all built around celebrities (where the IP has little value), or having material that does alright in the UK, but doesn’t really travel. These operations don’t really solve a problem for the big streamers, where they can do a single distribution deal with one big show that has an immediate (and global) impact on an ad operation.

Sony Music’s acquisition of audio production company Somethin’ Else did definitely short-cut their desire to be a big podcast player. As well as some solid-sized shows they also inherited 50-odd audio producers. Building out businesses that require lots of production can be hard, so the Somethin’ Else acquisition definitely provided a strategy fix and hopefully a faster route to scale.

In the tech-sphere, there’s few companies that have experimented around audio. Entale, which started off as visual podcasting app, and now leans into AI for discovery has recently been acquired by DMGT. Now predominantly a newspaper company, they’ve had little success in podcasting, so you can see why bringing Entale’s expertise in their business could be good. Outside of them, and perhaps ad personalisation company A Million Ads, the UK seems to have lacked much disruptive podcast tech.

Where the UK has had a big impact, is in the sales and distribution arena, with UK teams helping drive the success of Swedish Acast (market cap c£500m) and now US-based, though significantly UK-owned Audioboom (market cap c£150m).

Both started by developing strong tech to deliver the ability to commercialise podcasts and then built sales operations alongside partner management to grow inventory.

The tech-side has been somewhat commoditised and now the key skill is growing inventory and monetising that to a high level. Audioboom has taken more of an interest in growing a slate of originals, to reduce reliance on third-party monetisation and has outsourced more of its revenue operation, whilst Acast has concentrated on repping and selling – growing is international footprint in-house.

Whilst both are stock-market listed companies and have a route to happily exist out of the hands of big tech, there will always be some interest from shareholders in getting them married off. Their public nature does though make it expensive for them to be grabbed.

Also for both of them, the big question remains what problem does acquiring them solve? Core potential acquirers Amazon, Spotify, iHeart, SiriusXM have ad-tech, repping and sales operations already – do they need the extra scale? More likely they could solve a problem for a newer or a so-far less hungry big company. Both Google and Apple are laggards in this space (and both have had issues with media sales operations in the past) so this could fix a hole in a broader podcast strategy (if they think this is a hole that needs filling).

For other UK companies, finding smaller local partners may perhaps be a more likely option. Solving a smaller company’s problem is easier than a bigger one.

Building out a business to be acquired is different to building out a business for stand-alone success (even if operators pretend there is no difference). For those that will only realise their value through a sale and have jumped onto the hot hot hot world of podcasting, the key is to understanding what problems you fix for what kind of companies. Alongside that, it’s scale, ownership of successful IP and a unique (and potentially dominant) position in the market that’s core.

Plus, fundamentally, is buying you easier and more fruitful than building something from scratch?

How to entice big tech to make a big leap for your company (7min read)

Spotify’s Audiobook Acquisition

News last week that Spotify acquired the Audiobook platform Findaway. This helps the streamer reach its goal of providing “a destination for all things audio both for listeners and creators” – combining music, podcasts, live audio and now audiobooks.

There’s actually already a decent amount of audiobooks on Spotify, particularly in some languages, like German. The acquisition, as Spotify states: “…will accelerate Spotify’s entry into the audiobook space”.

Whether it’s just the catalogue that they’re after, or the broader Findaway business, remains to be seen. Findaway provided a place for authors and publishers to put audiobooks which the company then distributes to apps and services like Scribd, Chirp and Nook. Alongside that, they have a services business that helps create audiobooks and a devices operation that releases product that comes with audiobooks pre-installed.

Indeed, part of the benefit for creators in using Findaway is that it gives publishers broad distribution to a variety of suppliers including the big three of Amazon, Audible and Apple, alongside the smaller players and also the library platforms. The market leader – ACX (owned by Audible) concentrates on Audible, Amazon and Apple (where the bulk of consumption is).

It’ll be interesting to see if Findaway’s distribution partners still want to play ball when it’s owned by a competitor in Spotify, and therefore whether it becomes just a route for publishers to just get on the streamer.

The other thing to see is whether the self-service part of Findaway (authors creating their own audiobooks) is aligned with Anchor, Spotify’s product that does the same for podcasters. Anchor gets a podcast into Spotify very easily, but it also acts as a distributor to other podcast destinations like Apple Podcasts. There’s definitely some similarities there. Spotify did also have a self-service distribution system for music artists, but it mothballed that in 2019 (now you need to use a distributor like TuneCore or CD Baby)

Spotify’s growth into multiple verticals has meant that its partner and content management is a little confused. For musicians you can only have a direct relationship through a larger publisher (or aggregator), not as a creator. For podcasters its optimised for creators through Anchor, but larger publishers have a variable mixed bag of services. For Greenroom (its live product) they’re seemingly looking after creators, but not publishers. And then with audiobooks they, at the moment, have a route for both creators and publishers.

Of course, why Spotify has expanded out of music is for two reasons. Firstly their music deals still seem to lose them more money as they add subscribers. At some point they will likely renegotiate with the record companies and they will be able to point to the fact that music only accounts for x% of their listening, so is it time to do a new deal etc? Even a small reduction will generate millions of profit to the bottom line. The question is whether Sony, Warners and UMG will ever want to play ball.

However, even if that never happens, podcasts and Greenroom allows it to introduce advertising products, even for its paying subscribers (who only don’t get ads with their music). The addition of audiobooks gives them the opportunity to up the subscription price (or develop an ad-funded operation) to try and increase the margin in their business.

Spotify are also betting on getting consumers to abandon their Apple Podcasts or Audible app for just hitting a green Spotify button. This will then give them a lock on the audio consumer, that they can sell to, and more importantly sell up.

AOB

There’s a new edition of the Media Podcast with guests Faraz Osman (MD of TV production company Gold Wala) and Jack Davison (EVP of TV strategy firm 3Vision). We talk Dacre & Ofcom, ITV profits, BBC & Stonewall, the new audio development fund and more. Take a listen!

Over at Fun Kids, I’m pleased we caught up with the Prime Minister to round out our Climate Heroes campaign. He answered kids’ questions and played Dan’s Yes or No game.

It’s the latest notch on their audio bedpost (4min read)

Tackling radio’s youthquake

You join me on my way home from Copenhagen where I’ve had a great day with Peter Niegel from DR and Radiodays Europe, reviewing our Podcast Day 24 conference and planning for the next one.

Peter’s day job is looking after the research for DR – Denmark’s public broadcaster. It’s always fascinating to hear what they’ve been doing. As a developed western audio market I’m always intrigued how what’s happening there is different, or the same, to what’s happening here in the UK.

We had a good discussion about young listeners and what they’re consuming, from whom and on which device. Like many broadcasters they’re grappling with what’s broadcast, what sits on owned and operated platforms and what should be on third party destinations. It’s a conversation that could be replicated in pretty much every large audio operation in the world.

I was also telling Peter about my turn at the Radio Festival last week. I’m always very conscious that I occupy an odd place in the radio industry. I’m fortunate to have been involved with it for over 20 years, but I sit outside of the main operators – commercial and BBC – though the work we do at Folder often crosses over with some of their projects.

The industry has consolidated massively since I went to my first Radio Festival in Cardiff in the 90s and I think how the industry talks to each other has changed significantly too.

At one end it’s pretty collaborative. RAJAR, digital radio and Radioplayer is everyone, commercial and BBC, all collaborating. In the commercial world, there’s also pretty close alignment around regulatory discussions.

At the other end of things, where people speak publicly, there’s perhaps a more guarded discussion about the nature of the business. In the margins, and privately, there’s more openness about challenges that people are facing – but the difference between the two is sometimes quite striking.

There is, of course, a delicate balance between airing one’s dirty laundry in public and trying to have an honest discussion about working on challenges together.

I do think, though, there are some existential threats for the radio industry which can only really be tackled by a concerted cross-industry effort.

In my Radio Festival talk I spoke about the radio sector facing a youthquake.

Youthquake

Historically I’ve been quite bullish about radio’s youth performance. Whilst total hours have been dropping consistently, total reach for 15-24s has only seen a small decline, nothing particularly dramatic. As I mentioned the other week, Facebook had seen a much more worrying drop for young users – a decline of 13% in the last two years. Radio’s only seen around a 10% drop in five years.

However, with new RAJAR data out, I thought it would be worth more of a look. My key insight was splitting 15-24s into 15-19s (teenagers) and 20-24s. For the latter group, radio reach is actually up 7%, which hides the teenage performance – a 30% drop. That equates to around a million teens stopping tuning in.

Take that reach drop and combine it with less listening, and it means that 15-19’s total listening hours is down 40%.

I think that’s a pretty big problem.

At the same time the UK’s youth radio stations – Radio 1, Kiss and Capital – are much broader than just teenage stations. The profile of listening shows huge consumption by older listeners. For the commercial stations, this older audience is actually pretty essential to their business model. Their hours of listening turns directly into revenue.

For many of the stations on that list, 45 to 54s are bigger than 15-19s.

I feel for Radio 1, Kiss and Capital, they are broad younger focused stations. It’s unfair and unrealistic to task them with super-serving teens.

But with all three stations suffering 15-24 drop-offs, they are the first to feel the heat from the change in listening behaviour. I remarked to someone that they’re the equivalent of Barbados in the climate change discussion. The country that’s shouting to the others ‘hey there’s a problem you need to fix, it’s affecting us now’. The big countries (or radio stations) then go ‘yes, yes, we’ll obviously get to dealing with it’, whilst still enjoying their pre-change environments.

The reason why everyone should be concerned is this bingo-like grid below. What it looks at is the average hours a radio listener consumes at different years of their life. Here showing 15 to 34 year olds over a fifteen year period. What it effectively does is track a cohort of listeners as they get older, year to year.

I’ve highlighted in green a sample cohort and you can see that, roughly, the amount of hours they listen to when they’re 15 stays, just about, the same over much of the following years of their life. If you pick any starting year on the chart it more or less follows through the same way.

In other words the amount of radio that you listen to at 15 becomes the regular amount that you consume.

And no, people don’t ‘grow into’ radio as they join the workforce etc.

Therefore if you don’t work to engage with young audiences early on, it will affect how you do later on.

Teen Appeal

Now radio doesn’t have some god-given right to have teenagers tuning in. This is an audience with lots of media at their finger tips and lots of places that can replicate many of the mood states that radio can deliver. But the radio industry has to decide whether it wants to have a go at ensnaring this audience. And if it does want to do that, then I’m afraid that a radio group having a go at it on their own is unlikely to reap much of a dividend.

As has been demonstrated by DAB digital radio or Radioplayer, the radio sector can have a big impact on consumers when it works together to create a solution to a problem and then collectively sells it to consumers.

DAB has worked because the sector worked together on distribution and transmitters, the right regulatory environment and then a broad selection of new radio stations that include 6Music and Absolute 80s, 1Xtra and Kisstory. I think Teens need this same focus.

So to kick things off, two suggestion from me.

We need Radioplayer for Teens

A broad web, mobile and social platform that brings together all the content the sector makes that’s of interest to teenagers – audio, video, text and imagery. From Capital’s Jingle Bell Ball to Radio 1’s Surgery. Inclusion of all the groups’ radio stations and music streams. Radio, playlists and podcasts. All curated with an eye to those teens.

A radio station for teenagers.

Whether it’s the Global Academy, Bauer Academy, Wireless’ apprenticeships or the BBC’s talent outreach. The radio sector is doing a good job at training young people. Why not go a stage further and design an environment where teens can work on, and help to develop, a station for them.

It should live in the new Teen app, but also be available on BBC Sounds, Global Player et al. It should be well-funded, well-distributed and well-marketed and should hook into activities from all the stations. Why shouldn’t it be back stage at BBC’s Teen Awards or a Kiss New Year’s Eve party?

It should live and breathe the teen world – a secondary school world- co-opting the other environments that teens live digitally in.

There’s perhaps some better ideas and ways to engage with teenagers. A decent research project would probably help. But if radio wants to engage with this audience, it needs to do something different. Because the status quo isn’t really working.

You can watch my session from the Radio Festival, and the others, if you get a catch-up ticket from the Radio Academy.

AOB

As well as the Radio `Festival session, I talked a bit more about it on the RadioToday Programme podcast.

I’ve been a bit all over the place chatting to people at the RAJAR figures over the last week or so.

I popped up on Radio 4’s Media Show (with Miranda Sawyer, Dick Stone and Hot Pod editor Ashley Carmen), which you can listen to on BBC Sounds or watch the visualised version that went out on the BBC News Channel.

I also did a RAJAR catch-up with Ford Ennals from Digital Radio UK, that you can watch on their YouTube channel.

What’s happening to young listeners and what can be done about it (7min read)

How do I get more people to listen to my podcast?

With the work I do on the Podcast Awards, here in the UK and Australia, I often get asked lots of questions about podcasting. They include topics like monetisation, hosting, content, what success looks like and then often how to get more people to tune in.

woman in black tank top sitting on chair in front of microphone
Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

After someone’s been doing a regular podcast for six months to a year there’s often a point where the team think “jeez, this is hard” and “we don’t seem to be growing very fast”. Whether it’s a big corporate one, or a solo project, everyone tends to hit this wall.

This can either spur them on, or make them quit.

I think there’s a couple of things that podcasts that have been going for a while get wrong, and that’s what inhibits continued growth.

Read more…