Why Building Scale is Essential to Podcast Success

It's hard to argue with the power of networks

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.

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.