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Audio At 'Beginning Of A Golden Age,' Experts Say.

Panelists participating in Advertising Week New York's “Audio in Today’s Digital Age” seminar agree that audio – driven by COVID, an expansion of available platforms and continuing innovations in technology – has become more important to consumers, who are clearly in the driver's seat when it comes to news, podcasts and other content.

“We're just at the beginning of the golden age [of helping] content creators [to] find audience to help them monetize and connect in deep and meaningful ways,” panelist and CEO of audio streaming platform TuneIn Rich Stern says. “Just five years ago the connectivity, the devices, even the customer interest in these types of experiences, just weren't there. There are things that are possible now that just never were before, [and] a lot of innovation will happen rapidly over the next few years.”

NBC Universal News Head of Commercial Partnerships Nolly Evans, also on the panel, feels “it's a golden age because the consumer now has access to a lot more storytelling on a lot more different platforms, so they can choose when, where and how they want to consume it. You don't stop being a fan just because you get off the couch. For the first time, it's not about me having to make an appointment with a device, my content's available wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, however I want to consume it. That's never existed for customers before.”

The seminar, moderated by Head Writer and Podcast Producer Eric Schwartz, focused on how the changing market for audio has opened doors for media partnerships – such as that between TuneIn and NBC Universal – the pandemic's effect on the business, what content has resonated with consumers and changes in their behavior.

“The biggest lesson we took away was [that audio] serves a more emotional function in our customers’ lives,” TuneIn's Stern says about COVID's impact. “We saw significant listening growth, especially on connected devices, during that period, because audio can provide companionship and still do everything that you have to do to stay productive while working at home.” Evans notes that this behavior hasn't been just a pandemic-related thing. “What we're seeing on the platform side is more of a long-term shift. This wasn't just a moment in time and convenience of, oh, now I can listen in audio and I'll do that, but I'm gonna go back to the old way that I consumed. I think we're here, and it's just gonna get faster.”

Both panelists had much to say about the change in audio content consumption, especially when it comes to news. “I don't think the consumer really says, I'm watching my local TV now or I'm listening to my local radio,” NBC Universal's Evans says. “From a content standpoint, we tend to look at how do we shine a light on [local] stories and give them national [coverage].” TuneIn's Stern adds, “National and local need to live together, because that's a distinction we make in the media, that's not a distinction our customers make. We're coming off a period where we all now have a certain amount of distrust for snack-able news, soundbites and things that were meant to be shared in social media. We want a little more context, and audio gives consumers the ability to go deeper.”

When it comes to podcasts, panelists feel the key issue is consumer discovery vs. content. “Anytime you see a media category where 95% of the consumption is so heavily concentrated on a few hit properties, and the rest of the long tail is going undiscovered, it's a ticking time bomb,” Stern says. “We need to invest in that long tail discovery, if we're going to be able to ensure that this new medium continues to prosper. I worry sometimes we're jumping all the way to the end of monetization before we've really solved the customer need of discovery. The creators did their part, now us platforms need to do ours.”

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