If there are any podcast-skeptics left in the radio industry, their ranks are shrinking. And during the annual Radio Show conference on Monday, broadcasters who may not be closely following on-demand audio got a primer into the growing opportunity of moving beyond live programming in order to attract both listeners and advertisers.
“It has been a wild ride as this whole new medium has launched,” said iHeartPodcast Network President Conal Byrne. “And unlike most new mediums, it is here to stay. We have hit real scale in the medium with 100 million Americans a month listening to a podcast and hundreds of millions of listens a month across all kinds of genres.”
Radio has struggled with the “cool” factor in recent years, often times among its own ranks. But a wakeup for broadcasters is how Hollywood’s big names and its indie directors alike now want in on the audio game. Donald Albright, who co-founded Tenderfoot TV with partner Payne Lindsey, originally planned to make television shows. Their company is now one of the most successful podcast studios, producing such hits as Atlanta Monster and To Live And Die In L.A.
“I don’t think everybody understands how much you can do with your podcast,” Albright said during the online panel discussion. Prior to podcasting, he spent two decades in the music business and so Albright said podcasting wasn’t as much a leap as it seemed. “We were always telling stories, whether song to song or throughout the course of an album,” he said. “So making a podcast wasn’t that much a struggle.”
The path for NPR into podcasting is one more familiar to most in radio. The public broadcaster debuted its first podcast in 2005 and today is in a back-to-forth battle with iHeart for the monthly crown of biggest podcast publisher, as measured by Podtrac.
“We tried to leverage the talent we had in the organization,” said Anya Grundmann, Senior VP for Programming and Audience Development at NPR. Five years ago NPR had six million monthly U.S. unique listeners and in August that number was just under 27 million. “There are certain people who get it and are energized by what they’re seeing, so we ran with the folks on our staff that wanted to be in the game and came with ideas,” said Grundmann. “It’s an experimental space and you don’t want to commit your whole organization toward something that is very speculative.”
But it is the radio shows, whether NPR’s “All Things Considered” or iHeart’s “The Breakfast Club” that Byrne said gives broadcasters an advantage when they decide to move beyond on-demand versions of radio shows into standalone podcasts. “Then you can build originals with all that built-in infrastructural support,” he said. “It’s a pretty amazing leg-up.”
That has been on display with the recent success of Paper Ghosts, the true crime show hosted by investigative journalist M. William Phelps. “There’s still undervalued talent that you can find,” said Mangesh Hattikudur, Senior VP of Podcast Development for iHeart. Beyond just audio, there’s another commonality between radio and podcast. “At the end of the day, you have to provide service for the listener. That’s the biggest difference between quality content, and the content that gets skipped,” said Hattikudur.
Podcasters Face 2020 Challenges
Like all ad-supported media, podcast companies are facing a unique set of challenges in 2020 when it comes to generating revenue. Albright said the pandemic has upended production of new shows that require face-to-face interviews, and several others on the drawing board have been pushed back into 2021. Listenership has mostly held steady, or in other cases where there were declines it has bounced back. But advertising has yet to mirror that.
“I underestimated the reaction of advertisers to the economic situation because of the pandemic,” said Albright. “That I wasn’t prepared for and we had to make some adjustments.” He said he learned that podcasters need to be prepared to use new techniques to produce shows, something that is more difficult for Tenderfoot TV because it produces highly-produced series rather than weekly chat podcasts. “So we started to develop a different style show so if something like this happens, we’ll just be more prepared to deal with it.”
Public radio has listener donations to help soften the blow of smaller ad budgets going toward NPR underwriting. Grundmann said it helps that NPR has put tight controls on sponsor messages. “We keep our ad load really low because we want people to love the product and not get annoyed,” she said.
In terms of content, Grundmann said NPR has benefited from the “big machine” of the network’s news operation to keep up with a year of fast-moving stories. “It’s just a different output with a different tone and flavor but it is part of our daily habit strategy that we started three years ago,” she said. NPR has revved up seven daily podcasts that are ten minutes or less. “They’re built on the chassis,” she said.