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Recapping the Top Podcast Industry Changes of 2019


Stephen Smyk, SVP of podcasting and influencer marketing, and Hilary Ross, VP of podcast media, count down the biggest podcast events of the year


In this recording, Stephen and Hilary recap the biggest events in the podcast industry during 2019. From big content acquisitions to audience growth, the year was full of big changes and exciting innovation.


Abridged Excerpts Below

Excerpts transcribed by Veritone aiWARE.

Stephen: There were a few acquisitions, a few of them fairly significant. Certainly some of the biggest activity was with mass media finally jumping in; a lot of radio stations, a lot of radio networks that historically had dabbled a little bit finally made some commitments.

Hilary: And really sizable commitments, too. I think that was kind of one of the big takeaways this year was just the volume of activity going on in that space. And then the dollar values being thrown around, too.

Stephen: It’s different when you have an iHeart, a true titan of the industry, making that level of commitments. Apart from the money and the financial validation, what it provided to both the networks in the acquisition, but to the podcast groups that were acquired, the legitimacy that it added. Like when iHeart buys How Stuff Works. To see somebody like iHeart come in and say, this is an area that we’ve been dabbling in. We haven’t had the level of success that we had hoped for or it’s not happening as quickly as we want. Let’s find somebody who has a lot of experience here and let’s make a commitment to them and let’s let them help us power forward here.

And I think it kind of kicked everything off in terms of, they made their move. And then what? Three months later? Two months later, Spotify comes out and not only buys a content producer, but also a technology producer. So obviously buying somebody like Gimlet has been a pretty big deal. For all the things that Spotify does well, they hadn’t produced a whole lot of spoken word content.

Hilary: They’ve done a handful here and there, but I think, one big thing post the Gimlet acquisition is that looking at their slate of shows on the docket for 2020, it’s absolutely nothing comparable to what they had done before.  

Stephen: Not only were they acquiring an established set of content, Spotify acquired a team of producers, a team of content builders, all of these different things. And then a couple months later and Entercom decides to acquire the portion of Cadence 13 that they didn’t already own. And at the same time they buy what many perceived as the second largest true podcast content producer in Pineapple. Cadence, with as big of a rep network as there is out there, representing tons and tons of shows, tons of relationships gives Entercom an entrance into podcasting.

Podcast Audience Growth and Diversification in 2019

Hilary: I think knowing the big moves that have happened from a network level industry-wide, we’re seeing similar developments on the audience side of things in terms of who’s listening. How are they listening; how they’re discovering new shows. And the kind of content is coming out I think there’s been some really, really great developments and moves in the positive direction and 2019 as well.

Stephen: Yeah, there’s obviously some reasons why these mass media companies are making the commitment now. The metrics for audience, both in terms of individual show size and what people are seeing on individual shows–the growth of those audiences. But overall, the industry evolves and as more and more people are finding out about it. And when you look at Edison stats, more people are listening to podcasts every year. They’re listening to more podcasts or listening to podcasts longer. It’s hit the point where we can now an investment in this and have it pay off financially for us.

Hilary: 2019 is when Edison coined the term “super listeners.” That was a study that came out earlier this year that was identifying that not only are people listening to a lot of shows. It validated what we knew already. Podcast listeners are listening to multiple shows and listening longer. They do have a long attention span for shows that are of multiple lengths. I think there’s been a lot of validation of who’s listening and then also diversification in the space, too. There’s new people coming in. And I think the mass media approach is helping with that because they’re promoting podcasts outside of podcasts. They’re providing podcasts on the radio now. And so now you’re attracting listeners that are coming into the podcast ecosystem for the first time and they’re getting hooked. And now our base of podcast super listeners is growing.

Stephen: So you see things like a Will Ferrell/Ron Burgundy launching his show this year. The level of promotion that they could do allowed that show to grow to such a significant number of listeners in a very short period of time. A lot of it is because of Will Ferrell, but the ability of content producers to be able to promote that and to reach the people who aren’t the historical podcast listeners is really pretty powerful.

Hilary: And there’s even been some overlap this year too, where we’ve had large podcast hosts moving into mass media channels. They were so successful with their podcasts, they were granted a radio show this year. And so now they’re able to cross promote both platforms to new audiences and kind of continue to grow their base.

Changes in Podcast Ad Technology

Stephen: One of the things specific to our industry is the change in the way ad technology has happened this year. This is one of the biggest changes. The one overarching theme is that the industry is really taking off as an ad supported mechanism both for consumers and for those that are either producing the content or supporting it through advertising. And this year it felt kind of like we’re closing in on that critical mass point where it’s now taken seriously. It’s now considered as a channel that most advertisers can use. It’s considered by consumers a channel that they listen to. It’s part of their listening routine, this idea that podcasting is adopted in a variety of different ways now.

Hilary: Yeah, I think we’ve been saying that this year podcasting has gone from emerging to emerged. We’ve hit that critical mass and level of sophistication in terms of the ad tech side where it is broad reaching.

Stephen: And as we see this evolve, it’s now getting to a point where a lot of these things can be almost automated. They’re significantly easier to get, significantly easier to understand. Apples to apples is a great comparison when we’re looking at downloads and when we’re looking at things like whether it be the IAB compliance, moved on to IAB certified.

I’ve seen just this level of commitment from technology providers, from companies are investing in the space and technology. For many, many years there was one or two ad serving platforms that you could get your numbers from and you could run ads from for podcasting. Now there’s a number of them that space continues to evolve. Certainly rankings and measurement type things like Podtrac or being able to identify not only ways to count ad impressions and to be able to count what’s actually happening, but to be able to look at other things tying in in demographic information is growing. This year has been really pretty remarkable in that evolution.

Improvements in Podcast Ad Targeting

Hilary: Yeah, the added layers that we’re now able to tap into a psychographic targeting, demographic targeting, like you just mentioned, and then even the geographic targeting, I think that’s opening up the door for some advertisers that maybe couldn’t advertise in podcasts nationally before. And now we’re able to come in and really hone in on specific markets, which is just another really strong opportunity and something that wasn’t always there before. And there’s now even the opportunity to come in and target contextually as well, which I think is going to be a really, really big thing moving into 2020.

Stephen: Yeah. I mean, the idea that you can now target ads and in a similar way to what Google does with AdWords, but to be able to identify keywords or themes in programming and being able to dynamically serve ads based on thematic content. It’s no longer the days, this show is about X, let’s run these advertisers. Now you can run in a show that’s about Y, but it can be completely contextually relevant based on what the topic of that show for that particular week. You can now target at a deeper level.

International Growth in Podcast Audiences and Producers

Stephen: So international growth is certainly a big deal. As we’re seeing, with the adoption of podcast listeners on ad supported mediums, typically, the money follows.

Hilary: International podcast listening is not a new thing by any means. I think the monetization of the international marketplace is something we’re seeing grow this year, and I think we’ll definitely be something that will grow in the years to come as well. A couple of big things stood out to me this year. One was the release of big blockbuster U.S. Shows in foreign languages That was kind of a first there.

And then also there’s been a couple really big investments of U.S. based technology companies in the international podcast marketplace. I believe Art 19 just made a big acquisition in South Korea. When you’re looking at the level of podcasts listenership, South Korea ranks really highly on those charts, but historically has not really been monetized. So that’s definitely a place where I think we’re going to see a lot of growth in the years to come as well.

Stephen: We’ve seen a number of the European podcast companies making more inroads every year into the U.S. and building these umbrella organizations that are able to cover both international and U.S. markets. And the international audiences that we can reach have evolved into a sizable enough audience. We’re seeing new numbers of the U.K. and new numbers out of continental Europe and certainly the Far East, that’s definitely changed dynamics of it. We’re seeing across the entire industry the assumption is that that will probably continue to 2020 and significantly longer after.

Changes in Podcast Content and Formats, Including Daily Shows in 2019

Hilary: From a content perspective in 2019, was the emergence and really rapid growth and adoption of daily programming. I think obviously that The Daily led the charge there. There’s no question about that. But then there’s been adoption across a variety of other genres as well.

Stephen: I’m wondering if it’s again, this mass media coming into it and kind of having the ability to test some different things. So when you see a New York Times who isn’t completely and solely relying on their podcast revenue, be able to say we’re making a commitment to a daily show. There’s going to be some production costs associated with this is not going to be an insignificant commitment to us.

And then you see other companies buying content producers and also start producing their own content and being able to make those levels of commitment that podcast only guys probably couldn’t make for a long period of time. So we see a lot more real time stuff on things like the impeachment. We have 40 impeachment podcasts daily tracking the impeachment process. Those are things that you wouldn’t have found a couple of years ago.

Hilary: Yeah, same thing with Jeffrey Epstein. When that whole thing blew up that there was immediately five podcasts that popped up. I think that actually really speaks to the nature of podcast content and the fact that people are tuning in because they want a way to understand the world around them. And there’s podcast content suited to those needs. Anything that’s happening out there that needs to be digested in a more intimate fashion–podcasting is really filling that void. The content creators are following suit with what topics need to be discussed.

Stephen: And I think it’s really interesting that what you see is you’re getting deeper dives into particular areas that mass media may not be able to support. Either from a production standpoint or a cost standpoint. What I mean by that is, is that if you’re a 24 hour news network, you’ll run the same story over a period time and that’s expensive to do. When you’re doing a podcast, you can actually go into more depth and not worry about losing some of the listeners, because you’ve got people who are actually selecting this podcast to hear about this specific topic. So you can do these deeper dives and be more informative and be more engaged with those people that want to hear it. Without worrying about whether or not you’re reaching 4 million people for that four minute segment.

Hilary: I think we’ve also seen a lot more scripted content this year, more so than ever before. And I think that medium’s kind of finally coming into its own. In the beginning. I feel like it was a little more theatrical in nature. And now the scripted content shows are definitely becoming more mainstream and are really bringing in big celebrity names to be a part of it as well.

Speed of New Podcast Entrants Ramped Up as 2019 Ended

Stephen: Personally, one thing that I see the most is just there are so many new shows coming out every day. That volume has amped up considerably over the last year and even more so over the last few months. There tens of thousands of shows that have launched probably over the last few months. It’s amazing to watch the amount of new shows that are launching regularly. And a lot of them are really, really good.

Hilary: What about big shows going behind paywalls this year.

Stephen: So when we talk paywalls, it’s this question of ad supported shows that become subscription based. We have the Netflix thing. So you’re now going to pay to avoid ads. Is that long term? There will be significant changes, just like Netflix, a lot of people that will get premium content ad free. They will pay a fee for it and somebody will produce a lot of really, really good content. It may be Spotify. It may be Apple. It may be Cadence 13 and Entercom.

Hilary: It’s not new. I just think we’re seeing a little bit more movement in that space.

Stephen: Certainly more investment and more chances taken. I think everybody realizes that there will be some subscription-based spoken word premium audio content that people are paying for. There have been a lot of moves in that area over the last year, probably a few years out till you find a Netflix type player in there.