Most of the annual CES conference is about new tech developments and gadgets, but content cannot be entirely separated from the conversation. In the past that has largely meant video. But as an audio renaissance captures more attention, the annual Digital Hollywood event put the spotlight on podcasting as more big tech companies see it as a new content piece of their business.
The past year has brought about continued consolidation of the podcast industry. The most recent deal was Amazon’s purchase of Wondery. Some podcasters may worry about the impact, but Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez thinks it a good thing for the business since an industry that a few years ago could not get the attention of investors now sees multimillion-dollar deals.
“All the initiatives that we have under a small company are going to be put in front of more podcast listeners all over the world as a result of us partnering with Amazon,” said Lopez. “When I started Wondery five years ago, it was really difficult to get traction whenever you were trying to raise money or get the attention of advertisers. Podcasts weren’t getting a lot of love to be honest. But over the last several years we’ve seen podcasts take their rightful space in the minds of advertisers, listeners, investors and various players in the media ecosystem.”
Chris Corcoran, Chief Content Officer at Cadence13 which became a wholly-owned division of Entercom in 2019, agrees interest by Amazon in podcasting is good for the industry overall. “Consolidation happens in any space that continues to accelerate. There’s also still a lot of amazing independent creators out there,” he said. “But it shows especially in a pandemic year that podcasting and audio in general is in a new golden age.”
Stitcher became part of SiriusXM in October when its $325 million sale from the E.W. Scripps Co. was finalized. Chief Revenue Officer Sarah Van Mosel said she quickly discovered the advantages of scale as they operated alongside SiriusXM and its Pandora app. That included leveraging relationships in sports, comedy, entertainment as well as a mountain of data and ad tech massed by Pandora.
“The trend in consolidation is really towards scale,” Van Mosel said. “Listeners are there, and now we’re taking it to that next level so the monetization can really follow.”
With more than 100 million Americans listening a month, podcasting, unlike some other technologies, is showing itself as content format that will approach mass scale, according to iHeartPodcast President Conal Byrne. “It is a mass reach medium that is here to stay and won’t stop growing,” he said.
Bryne thinks a lot of new listeners will come from outside the U.S. “When you think of the tech players coming into podcasting in the next few years, especially Google and Facebook, you start to think about this as an internationalized medium and then instead of talking about 100 million Americans a month, we’re talking about a billion international listeners.”
In the meantime, Byrne said being part of iHeartMedia gives his team scale while also keeping in perspective that podcasting is “just getting started.” He noted podcasting still doesn’t have the 91% reach of AM/FM radio.
Moses Ajibade Soyoola, President of OtherTone Media – the studio just launched by Pharrell Williams – said those numbers have given “validation” to podcasting but he still sees a lot of growth within reach. “The influx of big-name celebrities into podcasting within the past year as other types of production has halted by the pandemic is a good thing for the medium overall, and it goes a long way to broadening the base of listeners,” said Soyoola.
But during Thursday’s panel, podcast executives agreed that just being famous doesn’t guarantee a series will work. The show still needs to be good, especially for non-scripted shows, they said. “There’s no magical fairy advertiser that is just going to swoop in with a million dollars because a show is what it is,” said Van Mosel.
Most podcast revenue still comes from advertising, but it is not the only moneymaker. Wondery has found success by licensing its intellectual property for television development. Of the 55 podcasts created by Wondery, 19 are being developed for TV with five already ordered to series. The result was a quarter of its 2020 revenue came from business other than advertising.
“One of the reasons we’re batting above average is when we greenlight one of those narrative, storytelling shows, we’re thinking with the same framework of a television development executive,” said Lopez. “We’re thinking about characters, story, and how we’re going to get people to care about what happens to each of the characters to bring them from the first episode to the last.”