The biggest stories from Hot Pod Summit

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Hello! I’m almost recovered from Hot Pod Summit. Thank you to everyone who attended this year. People from all over the industry showed up to talk business, and we had many lively and challenging discussions about advertising and business models. Have we solved all the problems with podcasting? Hardly, but I know I’m more optimistic about the future of the sector. Below I have some key insights from the day’s events.

I also made my first appearance at On Air Fest as an interviewer Freakonomics radio host Stephen Dubner. It was great fun talking about craft (plus business of course) and getting his perspective on the current state of the industry. I’ll be doing a Q&A about our conversation for Insiders tomorrow.

Before we get into this, I have to make some acknowledgments. Big thanks to our partners at work x work and the entire On Air Fest team for putting the event together, as well as to Wythe Hotel for hosting us. And I can’t forget to mention my Verge colleagues who helped make Hot Pod Summit happen, including Kara Verlaney, Esther Cohen, Jake Kastrenakes, Amrita Khalid, Nilay Patel, David Pierce, Andru Marino, Andrew Melnizek, and Helen Havlak.

We’d also like to thank our official title sponsors: AdsWizz builds the advertising technology that powers the world’s leading audio publishers and podcasters. Simplecast is a hosting, analytics and monetization platform for indie creators.

Additionally, we are extending our exclusive discount for Hot Pod Summit and On Air Fest attendees on all new annual subscriptions to Hot Pod Insider. Receive a 25% discount on an annual subscription here with code HPSBK2024. You can access an archive of previous issues here. This code expires on Sunday, March 10 at 3:00 PM ET.

I knew Ira Glass would be willing to delve into the nitty-gritty of the podcast world, and he did. We discussed This American life‘s early embrace of online distribution, how he took the company private after running it with WBEZ for twenty years, and what he thinks it takes for a podcast to succeed now.

although This American life has weathered industry turbulence better than other audio channels, but is not immune. He said the show was affected by the advertising downturn everyone else was experiencing and that, like so many other podcasts, This American life‘s downloads dropped by 20 percent after the iOS 17 update reduced the number of automatic downloads.

“I’m not crazy about losing money. If those are our numbers, then those are our numbers. But it’s sad. It’s emotional. The numbers are emotional,” Glass said. “If I had called someone a year ago, I could have said, ‘Here’s the deal, here’s who we are: 4.5 million people hear us every week.’ And now I have to say 3.5 million, which still sounds like a lot. But every time I say it, it hurts my heart.”

Glass also gave the audience a glimpse into his own listening habits. In his library: Search engine, Hacks on tap, Shameless acquisition targetand one of my favorites, Unholy: Two Jews on the news. He claims he has never met anyone else who listens to him Unholy, but we are here! You can check out the full list on Spotify (kindly curated by Arielle Nissenblatt of Descript).

It’s been a tough year for podcast advertising, and I was fortunate to have Kelli Hurley, Global Head of Revenue Partnerships at SiriusXM, and Tomas Rodriguez, Senior Director of Audio Partnerships at The Trade Desk, to discuss what went wrong and the way forward to go. It was a long conversation (an hour!) with many pointed questions from the audience.

With money no longer flowing quickly into podcasts, the biggest problem, everyone agreed, is finding a way to support mid-tier podcasts. It’s the key to sustainable growth in the industry (there can only be so many Joe Rogans or Conan O’Briens), and much easier said than done.

Hurley represented the sales side and spoke about matchmaking between brands and shows. She advised the creators to keep advertising plans in mind when developing their shows. Still, the bar is high to capture that kind of direct ad spend. “I would say we would like to see 100,000 [downloads] at least per episode. That is ideal,” she said. “Now we definitely have shows that are smaller than that. I think if you have a niche audience that is more diverse… I think that smaller audience has incredible value.”

On the buy side, Rodriguez pitched programmatically. Programmatic gets a bad rap in the podcasting space (there have been horror stories about ads that don’t resonate and ads that don’t fit podcasts at all), but he argues that it’s a way to entice larger companies to put their money into the podcasting space . It also takes the pressure off individual shows to hit certain download metrics, because a brand that buys programmatically will run its ads on a number of different shows. So as long as they get their return on their investment, it doesn’t matter if an individual show experiences a drop in listenership (like what happened with iOS 17). The CPMs that podcasts can charge through programmatic are lower, but they also spend less time and labor on scripting and producing host-read ads.

“When I think about how podcasts get to that next level, I want us to get a little bit bigger,” Rodriguez said. “I want us to make it easier for brands to come in and scale against podcasting. I think that’s the role that programmatic plays.”

In the wake of layoffs that have hit every part of the industry, from corporate giants like Spotify to public radio stations like NPR and WNYC to indie darlings like Pushkin Industries, podcasters are becoming increasingly skeptical of traditional models. I was joined by Jasper Wang, VP of revenue and operations at Defector Media, Eric Silver, creative lead at Multitude Productions, and Yooree Losordo, director of network operations at Radiotopia. Each of them was able to speak to a different kind of non-traditional structure, with Wang discussing Defector as a worker-owned cooperative, Silver talking about forming a collective, and Losordo explaining how a network of independent organizations functions.

Defector, built by the former staff of Dead endis seen as a success story and representative of how cooperatives can work in the media, not least because Normal gossip has become a huge hit. But it is not as utopian as it seems from the outside. Wang said that if your co-op limits outside investment (which Defector does), there is no safety net if your product doesn’t work. “At the end of the day it’s like, how much crap are you willing to eat to the point where your dream comes true? The answer could be: ‘not that much shit’ or ‘the dream will never come true.’

Radiotopia, part of PRX and operating as a network for independent creators, gives podcasters the opportunity to connect with advertisers without giving up the rights to their shows. “They don’t have to give up IP. Everyone remains in control of their diet and their destiny,” said Losordo. “When we do sponsorships and sales, we work with an outside agency, they take a cut, and then PRX takes a cut of the net. But the lion’s share still goes to the shows.”

A collective like Multitude splits the difference. Silver said Multitude not only helps independent creators sell advertising on their shows, but also offers consulting and encourages the development of multiple revenue streams through live shows and subscriptions. But it also expects the makers in the collective to strengthen each other by touring together and including fellow Multitude shows in their mid-rolls. “It’s like a network without top-down power,” Silver said.

We had a lot of interest from the public in how these work, so feel free to send additional questions my way! I’ll do my best to answer them (perhaps by engaging our three panelists for follow-up research).

That’s it for now! I’ll be back tomorrow for Insiders. And for the rest: have a nice week.

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