Why Building Scale is Essential to Podcast Success

I was somewhat taken by a line in the press release announcing that Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible has been acquired by SiriusXM’s Stitcher unit. He says:

I want to be with the company that launches new projects, and Stitcher provided us a unique opportunity to focus on the art of creating, developing and producing content we know our listeners will love, while freeing me of constantly thinking about the business of podcasting. (emphasis my own)

Whilst I’m sure it’s not the only reason, I can imagine there’s a certain amount of relief in cashing in your business chips and returning back to the thing you love (the audio) rather than holding out for something that may never come, or worrying about being left behind whilst your medium changes around you.

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Right now seems a point of real change in podcasting. If the first 15 (!) years were about establishing the format, experimenting, and general growth, I feel the second wave of the sector is about to kick off.

We’ve seen consolidation of the operators to large groups that encompass content, hosting and monetisation (predominantly Spotify, SiriusXM, iHeart, Entercom/Audacy). The big players making, er, big players – Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Google and now Facebook. We’ve seen the tighter integration of ad agencies, networks and standardisation of programmatic exchanges (removing lots of barriers about getting ads into podcasts). This then leads on to the now two core models for audio. The first being Ads, and now with the two big players in the game – Apple and Spotify – Subscriptions.

Podcast discovery, like all digital discovery, is a challenge for operators new and old, but the people who are more likely to do well are those with pre-existing awareness (or their own non-podcasting marketing efforts) or organisations with podcast scale.

Podcast Scale

If you look at Apple’s US top 100 podcast chart (yes, disclaimers about not being a real chart etc) most of the shows are parts of networks – Wondery, NBC, New York Times, Audiochuck, iHeart, NPR, Barstool, Pineapple, Parcast etc.

Some are established media companies, some are newer entrants, but they are growing by having a suite of programming that’s either similarly toned, targeted or cross-promoted. This cross-promotion can come from ads in their shows or building an understandable parent brand “oh, it’s a new Wondery podcast, I’ll try that”.

Looking at the UK chart there are some UK operators who are benefiting from this – like the BBC, the Guardian and the power of the US networks makes many of them a key player here too. Global is starting to make a real mark with a mix of brand and talent-led shows alongside many cross-promotional opportunities (in-podcast, radio, outdoor etc). But the more striking observation is how few home-grown networks of scale we have. In the top 100 there are some great exceptions with History Hit and Goalhanger, and beyond that Stakhanov, Broccoli, Crowd Network are starting to build scale, but on from that there’s very few.

We have historically had some strong single shows – Shagged Married Annoyed, My Dad Wrote a Porno, No Such Thing As A Fish, Happy Place – but I think there’s a real danger that new emerging shows will be drowned out, caught between the big UK broadcasters and US networks.

The podcast promotional space is also about to be put under even more pressure, sharing screen real estate with the subscription offerings in Apple and Spotify, and many of those promoted are likely to be value propositions – focusing on large, well-known channels, that unlock a series of shows.

Increasing Output

For anyone that’s wanting to build a real business around their audio output (rather than those extending their brand or are singularly talent-driven) I think it’s essential to work out how to put out a range of shows that reenforce each other and help grow an over-arching brand too. Looking at production outfits putting out disparate concepts without an umbrella that provides familiarity, I feel each launch ends up being the same roll of the dice about whether it catches the audience’s imagination or not.

The shortcut seems to be “lets find someone popular and give them a podcast”. Of course this can be something that works – there’s lots of talent-led successes – but what value does it really grow, and for whom? It is rare for talent to be truly collaborative. They need to be able to look after themselves and be able to take up opportunities that benefit their broader careers – that’s something that’s difficult to partner with. These shows also tend to have limited IP value – as the concept is built around the talent. You’ll always need them far more than they’ll need you.

The great thing about podcasting is that there’s low barriers to entry and anyone can get a show out there. Some of these will be brilliant, others less so. As a medium, audio is also very cost-effective to produce great work and it’s often a joy to work in. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from making anything.

But. As we enter this new phase the commercial realities and competition mean that for those trying to build businesses in this sector they surely have to recognise that to be successful they’ll need to change. Spraying and praying that content will work isn’t scalable when the people you’re competing with have strong, integrated, international businesses.

Building a successful show is more than just concentrating on what comes out of a speaker. For UK podcasts to grow, forming networks with complementary content, being laser-focused at serving groups of people or having marketing scale will be essential to ensure you’ve got a decent chance of being downloaded.

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It’s hard to argue with the power of networks

Apple’s New Subscription Podcast Features

We’ve talked about it a fair amount here over the past few months – the rumoured plan for Apple to introduce pay-options for podcasts in Apple Podcasts, and, well, it’s finally here. At the top of yesterday’s Keynote, Apple CEO Tim Cook dedicated 78 seconds to revealing the new features.

I mention the time partly to be mean, but also to point out the revenues of Apple’s hardware and services business are huge cash generators and no matter how important audio is to us, the big boys have much bigger fish to fry. What they’re introducing today in Apple Podcasts is eminently sensible, pretty well thought out and a great opportunity for some creators, but the reason it’s taken so long is that Apple have always had a better way to make a wheelbarrow load of dollars.

What’s spurred this on now? I imagine it’s the huge competition that they face in the audio space, and a need to reenforce podcast consumption on the iPhone and their other devices when Spotify is running amok in the sector.

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Facebook’s New Audio Features

The people behind eight paid-for subscription newsletters – Platformer, Culture Study, Newcomer, Hot Pod, Deez Links, Garbage Day, Galaxy Brain and Zero Day – have joined forces to collaborate on a Discord server – called Sidechannel.

Discord is basically Slack but for non-work things and started off life catering for gamers and streamers. It’s grown to 250million users who use it for a whole variety of things.

For the newsletter folks it’s an interesting member benefit. I’m a subscriber to Hot Pod and I now get exposed to a bunch of cool people chatting and sharing. It adds some friction if I feel I want to unsubscribe, if it does a good job, so has the potential to be positive for all concerned.

It’s first proper day was today and they kicked off with an interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Not a bad get!

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The Mood of the Nation

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh meant significant, instant changes, to the output of hundreds of radio stations and websites. With consumers used to choice and their favourites, many were surprised to be left without them on Friday afternoon.

‘Obit’ – the obituary policy – tends to get activated by most UK stations on the death of a category one royal (the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and the Duke of Edinburgh) or that of the Prime Minister. The plan tends to be to cancel or regular programming and replace it with content suitable for the mood of the nation

Much of this is steeped in history – and for the days when there was only a handful of TV and radio stations, what all good citizens were glued to.

It went hand in hand with the monopoly driven analogue media world. The stations reflected the mood of the nation, that they themselves had probably created.

Today’s Obit genuflecting is perhaps more driven by a fear of what the Daily Mail will say, rather than what it should be, which is reflecting the tastes of listeners or viewers.

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Permission to Break Format

Commercial radio gets a lot of unfair criticism. I grew up professionally in it, so perhaps I always feel that chip on the shoulder.

Many of the things that are spoken about negatively are conversely the things that can make stations successful – tight music rotations, speed links and research-driven content policies.

Much of why these things work on the radio can often get misconstrued as unbreakable rules. Even people who work in the sector often do the things – but don’t understand why they’re there in the first place.

These tactics are just some that are used to achieve the strategy, they’re not a means to an end.

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