News podcasts and ad buyers have yet to see a presidential election year ad spend bump

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In previous presidential election years, news publishers have often benefited from an increase in digital ad revenue. But some news podcasts aren’t seeing that same bump yet, with year-to-date ad revenue either down or flat compared to previous election years. 

Media buyers say advertisers’ aversion to news content has only grown since the last election, despite the entrance of new brand safety and suitability tools in the podcast space. In tandem, the news ecosystem has only become more polarized since 2020, seven agency execs told Digiday.

“Historically, we have seen an uptick in brands looking to engage with news [and] political oriented content during election years. However, this is not the trend that we are seeing this year. Brand suitability and the increased polarization of the political landscape are key factors at play here,” said Hilary Ross Shafer, vp of podcast and YouTube influencer at audio agency Veritone One.

Ad spend down

Year to date, one podcast ad agency saw the percentage of total podcast ad spend in news podcasts had declined 2.7% so far in 2024 compared to the same period in 2023, according to data shared with Digiday (the agency exec who provided the figures asked for anonymity as they were citing internal data). That percentage increased 2.5% from 2020-2021, but then decreased 6.1% from 2021-2022 and decreased 3.3% from 2022-2023. And there was a 2% increase in ad spend on news podcasts during this period from 2019 to 2020.

YoY changes in podcast advertising, per agency exec:

  • % of total podcast $ on news: up 2.5%
  • % of total advertisers running on news podcasts: down 2.7%
  • 2022:
  • % of total podcast $ on news: down 6.1%
  • % of total advertisers running on news podcasts: up 1.4%
  • 2023:
  • % of total podcast $ on news: down 3.3%
  • % of total advertisers running on news podcasts: up 2.5%
  • 2024:
  • % of total podcast $ on news: down 2.7%
  • % of total advertisers running on news podcasts: down 6.7%

When looking at the percentage of total advertisers that were running on news podcasts, there was a 6.7% decrease from 2023 to 2024 year to date – despite a 2.5% increase from 2022-2023.

A head of podcast ad sales at a news organization, who also asked to remain anonymous, told Digiday that news podcast ad sales were worse in Q4 2023 and Q1 2024 compared to previous quarters and the same timeframe for the 2020 presidential election cycle. They said it was getting more difficult to convince marketers to spend against tough news stories — especially war coverage — despite growing listenership.

In an earnings call on Feb. 7, The New York Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien cited a decline in podcast revenue as a contributing factor to the publisher’s year-over-year decline in total digital ad sales in Q4 2023.

“Our digital performance, including podcasts, was impacted by marketers avoiding some hard news topics like the Middle East conflict,” Kopit Levien said at the time.

News avoidance, nothing new?

Gina Garrubbo, president and CEO of NPR subsidiary National Public Media, said news podcast ad revenue was flat despite selling out in Q4 2023 and Q1 2024. She said she wasn’t counting on the same presidential election year bump in NPR’s podcast business compared to 2020 or 2016.

Out of its “hundreds” of advertisers, Garrubbo said NPR has 23 clients that buy ads across NPR’s podcasts but avoid its news shows, up from 15 from a few years ago. She declined to say how many total advertisers currently buy NPR’s podcasts or name specific brands.

“Before NPR launched podcasts in 2005, only a very small number of brands didn’t want to be associated with news as NPR was all radio and mostly comprised of news programming,” Garrubbo said. “I would say the increase in brands wanting to avoid news on NPR has been slow and steady over the years since then, but literally hundreds of brands support NPR news programming across all available platforms today.”

Some podcast media buyers say they haven’t seen any change in brands’ aversion to news content.

“I think that clients who have previously felt uneasy about news and politics tend to maintain that level of unease, particularly during election years. Some clients may put extra blockers on all content, not just podcasts. I noticed this trend among previous clients during the 2016 and 2020 election years, particularly Fortune 500 companies. It is not strictly a podcast problem, as politics heavily intersects with culture, and this often raises concerns for advertisers who are already weary,” said Gretchen Smith, vp of media at Ad Results Media.

A second media buyer who asked to remain anonymous said their clients typically “steered clear” of news and politics podcasts, “due to brand sensitivity as well as not wanting to side and be seen leaning in any specific direction,” they said. The upcoming election had no impact on this, they added.

Lauren Russo, evp and managing partner of innovation and performance audio at Horizon Media, said the agency does not invest heavily in hard news or political content, but does buy ads against news organizations’ culture entertainment and business news podcasts.

A polarizing ecosystem

Jon Lefferts, evp of strategic investment at MAGNA, said ad spend in news content is being “challenged” due to it being a “controversial space.” 

A third audio media buyer who exchanged anonymity for candor said the brands they work with avoid news content “based on brand safety and suitability concerns.”

A fourth agency exec said the large brands they worked with didn’t think it was worth the risk to pay for ads in news podcasts when they could dedicate the already small percentage of their overall media buy going to podcasts to shows in other categories considered more brand safe. They added they weren’t seeing any notable change in clients spending with news and politics podcasts, despite the fact that it was a presidential election year. 

Some bright spots

Despite podcast ad buyers not seeing an election year bump in ad spend going to news content, some publishers with podcast businesses are seeing growth. Slate’s news and politics podcast sales are up nearly 50% year over year, according to a company spokesperson.

Slate president Charlie Kammerer cited the publisher’s longstanding shows as the reason for this. Its show “Political Gabfest,” for example, launched in 2005, he said. “Our trusted voice in the very noisy and recently crowded news and politics space has somewhat insulated us.”

Some research also shows growth in the news podcast space — albeit in 2023. According to MediaRadar data shared with Digiday, advertisers invested $69.6 million toward news programming podcasts in 2023, including NPR, The New York Times and BBC. That’s a 15% year over year increase from the $60.3 million spent in 2022, a non-presidential election year.

Brand safety and suitability tools — such as those from Barometer and Sounder — should be helping brands have more control over their buys (especially targeted programmatic ad buying) around news content. But media buyers told Digiday that those tools are still quite new and not enough buys are being made using those tools to make an impact yet.

“Maybe it’ll be a bigger deal for the 2028 election,” the fourth buyer said.

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