Podcasting,  cultural narrative & IP 

Jul 6, 2023

The global podcasting community recently gathered in London for the second ‘Podcast Show’ event.   This was held at Islington’s iconic Business Design Centre and featured independent podcast creators, industry experts, talent, and exhibition booths from the likes of @bbcsounds, @amazonmusic, WonderySpotifyAcast and more, with several tech firms also exhibiting their products to creators.  If the snaking queue outside to get in was anything to go by, the podcasting business is in rude health. Here are some of my musings about the industry, and how it relates to the wider ‘content’ industry itself from cultural narrative to IP rights. 

Podcasting is shaping storytelling & cultural narrative. 

This relatively young medium has quickly become an integral part of the IP infrastructure and is key in how society tells stories. Journalism has become increasingly led by audio and is bringing a wider audience to news consumption than print and TV do. The intimate nature of podcasting gives creators more opportunity to dig deeper into subject matter.  Speaking at the event, panellist Ceri Thomas (Tortoise) commented that “we’re all working together (on) how to make a narrative culture in this country”, a sentiment echoed by Sky News’ Dave Terris who commented that “podcasts are at the centre of the newsgathering”. 

Podcasting has a proven ability to rally a wider, and younger, audience than print journalism, or that of the investigative video documentary.  The Guardian’s Nicole Jackson referred on one panel to podcasts being a “gateway for Guardian journalism…. bringing in a much younger audience”. Jackson also spoke about how the ability of researchers to be in early in the podcasting space allowed subject matters that may have been a “bit dry” become more accessible. 

Perhaps podcasting’s ability to reach a wider audience than traditional news media is helped by the faster turnaround times than video; the lack of being beholden to teams of TV commissioners, and the loss of business affairs red tape.   Podcasting entities are often leaner, more dynamic and nimbler than their TV counterparts as there are greater freedoms and fewer rules.  The lack of such obstacles in the podcasting medium means that sometimes there are less obvious lines between sources and the journalist, between fact and fiction.    

The risks that come with editorial decisions were touched upon several times in London.  It made me wonder if the fact that a lot of podcasts are talent-led, and that there is an increasing amount of creative (and commercial) control being vested in those individuals, makes it harder to avoid the blurring of news and entertainment lines.

There was also no shortage of fun being poked at traditional media outlets by those who have translated their storytelling from TV to podcasting, notably by the News Agent’s panellists. Exec Producer Dino Sofos referenced the “four minutes” that the (BBC News Political Editor) Chris Mason has “if he’s lucky”, pointing out that with a podcast you can delve deeper, as it’s “not just a headline”.  

It’s clear that podcasting is hugely important in engaging wider, younger audiences more deeply in the shaping of cultural narrative. Those who see themselves as storytellers across all media think about the best way to reach their audience in the most effective way, and see audio as part of the IP and story-telling framework that can be utilised to engage with an audience. 

The important of IP rights was also a prevalent theme at The Podcast Show. It’s an area that podcast publishers and creators want to know about and are starting to see as a revenue source, but in the main, and by comparison to the TV world, they are extremely inexperienced.   The commercial dealings in this space are a bit of a wild west, though there are some larger media groups, media business affairs companies and talent agencies such as CAA and WME grappling with and forging through new ways of working. Perhaps we will reach a point whereby we look to a podcasting ‘Terms of Trade’ to protect creator’s IP and their future revenue streams?

There was plenty of interesting discussion about what is talent access? what is a life story? and what constitutes original IP, with one Business Affairs focussed panel highlighting the importance of early-stage contributor and talent agreements, and how important it is to ensure you know what your IP is, and how to manage it.  It was stressed upon that you should go into podcast creation thinking about all your media rights, a point I agree with and applies upon entry into any area of media production. 

Undoubtedly, most audio creators are not thinking about the 360 rights potential of the IP they are creating, though there are plenty of  examples of creators becoming savvier to the long-tail revenue opportunities beyond the podcast.  Some key players, notably Novel, Stak, Listen and others are very clearly exploring this space.  As the rights owner of two of the UK’s regular top 5 podcasts told me, you simply must decide if you want to focus on growing your audio revenue streams quickly on your existing output or looking at a more uncertain area like expanding the rights you are monetizing into video – and it’s usually easier to go with the former.  There’s an element of sticking to what you know does well, rather than taking a risk in the expensive and unpredictable world of TV. 

There were however many familiar ‘TV faces’ present looking to discuss how to capitalise on existing audio development for TV potential.  It was clear to me that the podcast community sees itself as creator of a unique product that is an audio product.  But the importance of video was discussed at length.  Clearly there are parallels between narrative podcasting and TV drama and doc serials in that they pollinate each other, with the list of adaptations steadily growing. This is obviously an important place to look for quick to produce IP which can come with a track record, data, and a pre-existing audience, but it’s not as simple to translate across media as some may hope. 

Video and audio will soon be intertwined with video platforms such as YouTube pressing on with podcasting strategies. YouTube’s UK’s Alison Lomax, spoke at the Podcast Show, confirming there was “no big launch” for them to announce in the podcast space, but she did confirm that the podcast features on YouTube will launch in the UK, as has already happened in the US.  

No Guaranteed Win

 Any TV producers looking to podcasting for a quick win should look away.  It’s often quoted that only 0.1% of podcasts make money, but this is a stat that I think it somewhat out-dated (Forbes, 2020) and skewed by the nature of most podcasts being self-published.  We are however going to see more data published to show the popularity of podcasts with a clearer lens as data across platforms will now be available in the UK, as is already the case in the US.    Furthermore, it has become easier to get an idea of what is being developed and produced in this space with the advent of an IMDB podcast database.

It may also interest producers to know that podcast budgets can range dramatically from 5k to 50k per episode, with those in the investigative space costing “between £50-150k” per investigation (Tortoise). With the current advertising spend on audio, you need to have a phenomenal number of subscribers to make interesting returns, which is something that very few podcasts achieve. 

However, advertisers are increasingly looking at podcasting for strong ROI, as podcast audiences are growing.  According to new research by Acast, two-thirds of podcast advertisers say they see between $2-$6 back for every dollar spent; 20% say they see more than $6 back. 

Priya Sahathevan (Sky News) said that the data shows podcasts haven’t reached the peak of their monetisation potential.  “Our audiences last year were 50% higher than the year before and our revenues were 50% higher than the year before”.  Increased revenues are not being built solely from advertising, but by exploitation of ancillary rights such as live events, subscriptions, additional content, and through licensing the IP on thereafter.  Big players are continuing to put money into this area to create monetizable IP, for example,  BBC Sounds announced it is joining Spotify’s Megaphone, a podcast publishing and monetisation platform.  

Though only a tiny proportion of the podcasts out there are commercial hits, and, unless you find a commissioning entity that will finance your production, such as a BBC Sounds, Audible or Wondery, podcast models increasingly rely on self-funding and then ad-revenue split models (Acast for example) and are reliant on creator/producer or third-party investment from the outset.  

All in all, it seems unlikely that investment into podcasts has reached its peak, and ad revenues and audiences will continue to grow. It will continue to be an interesting and dynamic space for IP generation, and an increasingly important media for breaking news stories and investigative journalism which engage wide audiences.  In addition, the gap between content consumed via audio and via video will become smaller and smaller.

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