How radio and audio giants are trying to solve podcasting’s discoverability problem

Over the past year, audio platforms including iHeartRadio, Pandora and Spotify have been buying their way into the podcast space. Now they are trying to figure out if their promotional muscles can help solve one of the format’s longest-standing problems: Discovery.

On Wednesday, the radio broadcaster Entercom announced it had acquired Cadence13 and Pineapple Street Media. Those two purchases, which will give Entercom the resources to sell advertisers both podcast advertising and branded podcasts, also give the broadcaster, which owns, two new stables of on-demand shows it needs to promote, ranging from narrative non-fiction hits such as “The Clearing” to news conversation staples including Crooked Media’s podcasts.

Entercom plans to use a mixture of established methods, such as promotions inside of other podcasts and short runs of exclusivity, and more unproven ones, such as broadcasts of slimmed-down, 15-minute versions of podcasts that will air on terrestrial radio, to promote the podcasts. Over time, it hopes to turn, its digital portal and mobile app, a hub for windowing shows and for product experiments designed to fix this issue. “One thing I’m really excited about is getting these guys in the room with my product team,” said J.D. Crowley, Entercom’s chief digital officer.

It’s not clear whether it will work. But Entercom’s commitment is part of a trend that many in podcasting are excited about, where major platforms are investing actively in trying to grow and nurture their format.

“I’ve always felt like radio and podcasting should be working much more closely than they have been,” said Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of Pineapple Street Media.

“We have really good relationships with all the platforms, and they’ve been really good at promoting,” Weiss-Berman added. “But there aren’t great systems for promotion [in podcasting]. Discoverability is a thing that still needs a lot of work.”

After years of growing on the fringes of the media ecosystem, podcasts have been swept into the middle of digital media’s biggest areas of interest. They have become key sources of intellectual property for film, television and digital video development; they have attracted the interest of venture capitalists looking for the next big subscription opportunity.

Yet the format remains hobbled by a discoverability problem. By some estimates, there are more than 600,000 podcasts available, and up until a few weeks ago, there were no easy ways to search for them, or through them. That stumbling block has contributed to podcasting’s steady, but unspectacular growth as a format: About 22% of U.S. adults over the age of 12 listen to a podcast every week, according to Edison Research.

That’s led some podcasters to look at the arrival of audio giants hopefully, not just because of their large audiences but because of the resources they’ve been willing to spend marketing podcasts as a format. For example, iHeartRadio has committed to using $100 million worth of on-air promotion to plug its podcasts this year, said Conal Byrne, the head of podcasts at iHeartRadio.

At any given time, Byrne said, there are one or two new shows that iHeart stations are promoting across most of its stations, plus a backlog of between five and seven older shows that it is promoting. Those can range from “Noble Blood,” a new show that premiered in July, to “Stuff You Should Know,” a podcast that has been around for more than a decade.

It can also mean premiering episodes on terrestrial radio. Though that occasionally means cutting a podcast episode down to a length that fits into radio programming, Byrne said that many of iHeart-owned stations are comfortable airing a show that runs more than an hour.

When it puts that muscle behind a show, the results can be dramatic. Most recently, Byrne said, iHeart premiered the second season of “Disgraceland” on 200 iHeart-owned radio stations. The downloads on Disgraceland leapt from an average of 200,000 downloads per episode to more than 2 million, Byrne said.

Digital-native audio companies have been experimenting too. At the beginning of 2019, a podcast recommendation engine, modeled on the recommendation product that powers its core digital radio product, came out of beta at Pandora.

Spotify, which is a bit further advanced in its embrace of podcasting, has made several product changes to promote the format. Though podcasts still constitute a small part of content consumption on Spotify — the company’s CEO, Daniel Ek, has said that he expects podcasts to eventually comprise 20% of the listening — the platform has been foregrounding podcasts more and more inside its mobile apps and web player.

During its most recent quarterly earnings, Spotify announced the launch of three new features designed to encourage more podcast listening. One, called Morning Drive, mixes music and podcast episodes into a daily mix that people can listen to during their commutes.

Spotify has even begun emphasizing podcasts more in its marketing; a recent announcement about a deal between Spotify and AT&T described Spotify as a way for AT&T customers to get more music and podcasts.

How much impact these changes make remains to be seen. But the standards that these newer, larger companies have remain high. “In podcasting land, we’re all super-thrilled if we get a million downloads for an episode,” Weiss-Berman said. “In radio-land, that means nothing.”

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