After a tough year, podcast execs say 2024 will bring in new advertisers amid stiff competition for listeners

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Podcast execs weren’t shy about how difficult of a year it was for their businesses, facing advertising slowdowns and the challenges associated with a maturing medium.

Despite the ghost of 2023 following them into the new year, heads of podcasts at five companies were optimistic about 2024 when speaking with Digiday, sharing positive signals of continued audience growth, new advertising dollars coming into the medium and opportunities to expand shows into franchises.

But they still face stiff competition as podcast networks fight to gain listeners and push into video to grow the reach of their content.

“It’s been a super challenging year. It’s been the year podcasting grew up. Podcasting this year had to face the real challenges of running a business,” said Steve Ackerman, evp and head of global podcasts at Sony Music Entertainment. “This year has been growing pains.”

Steve Lickteig, ep of CNN Audio, cited “very difficult” direct ad sales this year across the entire podcast industry. “This type of upheaval can cause people to question their content strategies and their content mission. In times like this, I think it’s best to do two things: have faith in your editorial instincts and plant a few seeds so that you’re positioned well when the ad market does come back,” he said.

So what does this new phase in podcasting look like? “Quality over quantity, leveraging partnerships, and better promotion of audio’s unique ability to bring brand safety to advertisers,” said Steve Raizes, evp of podcasting and audio at Paramount Global.

Here are the challenges and opportunities the podcast industry is facing next year, according to seven execs:

More new advertisers coming in 

Podcast execs told Digiday that after a tough year of stalling ad spend due to marketers’ budget cuts, they’re seeing new advertisers come into the medium and believe this will only continue next year.

“We definitely expect growth as we go into next year,” said Will Pearson, president of iHeartPodcasts. “With newcomers coming into this space, [we see] that rate only accelerating. I think you’ll have a lot of [advertisers] coming into this space that have frankly never spent in podcasting before.” 

Gina Garrubbo, president and CEO of NPR subsidiary National Public Media, said top advertising categories like financial, technology and B2B had slowed this year, but are “definitely coming back,” leading her to improve her outlook on the podcast ad revenue growth “considerably.” 

Our calendar of upfronts are all coming in now, and they’re coming in stronger than [this time] last year,” Garrubbo said, though she said it was “premature” to say by how much given NPR’s “calendar of upfronts is just coming in.” 

Garrubbo said NPR was bringing in ad dollars from brands in travel and CPG, the latter of which not traditionally a big category for the company. Angie More, head of podcast ad revenue at Wondery, said she was seeing new ad spend in sports betting, financial services and automotive categories.

However, Garrubbo noted that some media agencies’ recent ad spending forecasts were not “through the roof.” GroupM, for example, predicted a slight deceleration in global ad spending next year compared to 2023. However, a PwC/IAB report from May projected that podcast ad revenue would more than double from 2022-2025 to about $4 billion.

Ray Chao, svp and general manager of audio and digital video at Vox Media, said he will focus on diversifying Vox’s podcast network’s advertisers and ad categories.

Creating franchises

Next year, expect to see more podcasts expand beyond the audio format and into live tours, video and events. 

Vox’s true crime show “Criminal” is going on tour and hitting 13 cities to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Chao said. The company’s podcast network will also have a noteable presence at SXSW in March.

“The world of podcasting is going to continue to expand and flourish beyond just the audio RSS feed,” Chao said.

Wondery is planning on producing more video and social extensions of its podcasts, as well as merchandise and live events next year, More said. (Wondery created three free, ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) channels on Freevee for its podcast content in October, to help reach new audiences.)

Podcast networks will continue to launch new shows, though it’s harder than ever to make a hit

All of the podcast execs interviewed for this story said they will continue to invest in content production, and launch shows with new talent — that is, other than CNN’s Lickteig, who said they will focus on existing shows and digital verticals to expand their reach. Unique listens for CNN’s podcasts were up 4% in 2023 from 2022, according to Lickteig, who did not provide exact figures.

Expect to see more podcasts in the kids and sports categories. Execs at both iHeartMedia and Wondery teased plans to debut new shows for those audiences. iHeartMedia plans to launch 10 to 12 shows a month next year, roughly the same cadence as this year, according to Pearson.

But some execs said it was harder than ever to create a hit — and because of that, publishers have to be smarter about where they put their limited resources.

“What is a hit now is not at the same level as what used to be a hit a few years ago, in terms of audience size. That obviously throws up challenges around monetizing, but also challenges around… [minimum guarantees] that have been paid out. When you’re not putting in the money you expect to put in on a show and you’ve already paid out money for that show, clearly that creates a misfit,” Ackerman said.

Bryan Moffett, chief operating officer of National Public Media, said podcast publishers need to “increase efficiency” next year by doing more with fewer resources. He gave the example of the two-year-old “Book of the Day” podcast show, which repurposes a previously-aired radio segment about a book review or an author with a “very light lift” from a part-time host and producer. That show now generates a million downloads a month, and has almost 300,000 monthly listeners, according to Moffett.

Moffett and CNN’s Lickteig said it’s getting more difficult to justify the costs of short, limited-run narrative podcast shows, as the time investment usually does not pay off in revenue. And that leads to the biggest challenge facing podcasters next year: finding an audience for their shows.

“Every time we’re deciding whether to greenlight a show, we’re asking, what is this show really trying to accomplish, what is the mission of the show and who is going to listen to the show? We really challenge ourselves on that front,” Pearson said.

Wondery’s More said her team is “taking more time” to launch new shows next year, by taking the show to market, testing it out and seeing if advertisers are interested in the show and the talent behind it. “That sets you up for a partnership versus just a media buy,” More said.

NPR is going to increase how often they’re promoting their podcasts next year. The company started a cross-promotion exchange with NPR’s 150 station partners for their podcasts this year, which has driven 65,000 new listeners across the network, Moffett said. 

“The bigger franchise shows that have been out for a long time that have some of the largest audiences like ‘Planet Money’ or ‘Fresh Air,’ those are the ones that we’re having to fight a lot harder than we used to to have to keep our audiences, which means just getting smarter about promotion — about your internal marketing, to make sure the audience remembers your show amidst all the things that are vying for their attention and all the podcasts out there,” he said.

Watching YouTube closely 

This year, YouTube announced plans to improve the listening experience for existing video podcasts on its platform, one of the largest for podcasting listening — it was a welcome focus for podcasters, given the fact that many of them value YouTube’s search function and reach which can help people discover their audio shows. This will likely become increasingly important as more podcasters dabble with creating complementary video podcasts to distribute on YouTube.

“YouTube is only about a year into really embracing podcasting. And I think they have still got some things to figure out about how they help the industry monetize on their platform. And clearly, that can be a very big opportunity because of the scale of listening they now are enjoying. So if they can figure that out properly so that podcasters can monetize in a similar way to the way they can on Apple and Spotify, that can have a massive impact for the industry,” Ackerman said.

Evangelizing the growth of the medium

Podcast execs were quick to cite a number of surveys and studies that they said reflect the health and continuing growth of the medium, from growing listenership to attention measurement studies showing the effectiveness of podcast advertising.

In their eyes, a core issue remains: advertisers aren’t putting enough of their media budgets in podcasts. And industry execs need to be doing more to spread the gospel of the strength of the medium to advertisers, they said.

“The disconnect is the perceived value of that audience when it comes to advertising. I think the podcast audience is extremely undervalued by advertisers,” CNN’s Lickteig said. “Once more advertisers understand that, I think you’ll see the industry’s economic value match its editorial value.”

Podcast execs need to “help people see how much this space is growing and continues to grow rapidly. And [correct that] narrative — frankly, I think a misleading narrative — about the challenges in the podcast industry because of the correction around some of the business models that were out there before,” Pearson said.

Garrubbo added: “The share of ear does not match the share of ads. And I don’t think that audio gets the respect, attention or money that it deserves.”

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