Podcasting is experiencing a Netflix moment. Global hits – from the ground-breaking Serial to Up and Vanished, and TV crossovers such as Dirty John – and Spotify’s plan to spend up to $500m on leading producers have made podcasts a hot media property.
Global monthly podcast listener figures are forecast to grow more than six-fold, from 287 million in 2016 to 1.85 billion in 2023, according to the Ovum research company Ovum. In the UK, Ofcom says that nearly 6 million people tune into a podcast each week, double the number of five years ago.
“A Netflix moment is a very accurate characterisation of what is happening in podcasting,” says Hernan Lopez, the founder of the podcast studio Wondery, maker of hits including Dr Death and Over My Dead Body. “I would say we are reaching an inflection point. Huge numbers of people are realising that there is great content available that isn’t offered by traditional players.”
This moment has not been lost on Spotify. This week, it splashed more than $100m on true crime podcast maker Parcast. It was the Swedish music and audio streaming company’s third acquisition in quick succession after spending $230m on Gimlet, the firm behind popular podcasts including Homecoming, made into an Amazon TV series starring Julia Roberts, and the podcast platform Anchor.
Spotify has $200m more to spend on building its position in podcasting this year. The company has said it is a “safe assumption” that over time more than 20% of all listening on the service will be non-music content.
Like Netflix, moving into owning original content is a strategic necessity for Spotify, which makes low margins from the music licensing deals it has with the big three record labels.
The battle to be a big player in podcasting distribution, led globally by Apple, is intensifying with Google last June launching its own service and the BBC, one of the biggest producers in the world, launching the BBC Sounds platform. This week, it emerged that the BBC has pulled its podcasts from Google, accusing the Silicon Valley giant of directing people to its own service.
The biggest issue remains how to make money out of podcasts. In 2015, the year after the first series of Serial launched – the first global hit that put podcasting on the digital media map – worldwide ad revenues from podcasts totalled just $171m. This year the figure will be about $1bn, and will almost double by 2022, according to Ovum.
Traditionally, podcasts have been free, sometimes with ads, but now paid-for models are emerging. The biggest move is being made by the US newcomer Luminary, which has secured $100m in backing and styles itself as the “Netflix of podcasts”.
Luminary has been spending serious money to secure big names for exclusive podcasts, from the Girls creator Lena Dunham to Malcolm Gladwell and Conan O’Brien, and intends to launch in June with an $8 a month, ad-free model. It will also offer a free tier, where listeners can play non-exclusive, ad-supported podcasts from numerous third parties.
However, the limitations on listeners’ tolerance of ads and propensity to pay could well keep the commercial viability of podcasts constrained. Unless, of course, the content can be exploited more widely. Netflix has turned Dirty John (52m downloads) into a drama starring Eric Bana and Connie Britton. Dr Death (36m downloads) is also being adapted into a scripted series by Universal Cable Productions, maker of Mr Robot and The Sinner.
“I don’t believe that a podcast needs a TV remake to be successful, but I do believe it can benefit from it,” says Lopez. “The TV launch of Dirty John effectively gave the podcast a new release, a new wave of millions of listeners.”