Image: Matthew Randell

Lessons from panels at The Podcast Show 2023

A BBC radio 1 presenter gives a very hyperactive introduction to Michael Bayston, VP of Adtech Solutions at Acast. He is self-aware enough to make a joke that his talk will be dryer than the intro made it sound, before launching into his presentation which began with a PwC financial breakdown of advertisement spending on audio broadcasting over the last few years.

It’s hard to argue against the fact that big change is occurring

This was the first presentation on my agenda for day two of the Podcast Show 2023: “Execution, Targeting & Measurement: Is Podcasting ‘Growing Up’?”. Bayston introduced the panel, which included another representative from Acast: Fern Potter, VP Business & Product Strategy.

The titular question was answered immediately: yes, podcasting is growing up. I don’t disagree, but I think the biggest change is that people are taking it more seriously, rather than any inherent change in the medium. Maybe I’m too sceptical about the impact traditional media and advertiser attention has. Walking through the bustling convention centre, it’s certainly hard to argue against the fact that big change is occurring.

The stage was barely a foot tall and the audience seating was not tiered, so once the panel take their seats they completely disappeared from view. It almost felt like I was listening to a podcast.

I learned a lot. I learned that automated advertising saves Acast’s marketing team 60-70% of their time. I learned that their self-serve option was only launched 6 months ago but already has over 700 customers. Bayston argued that we need this in podcasting to bring more funding in. I learned that podcast advertising is way bigger than retail advertising, despite not being talked about as much. I learned that Google’s privacy team and marketing team aren’t allowed to talk to each other so as not to give their marketing team unfair advantages in terms of adapting to the changing state of Google user data security.

This presentation was clearly meant for people who work behind the curtain, and as such is full of back-end jargon such as “ROI” and “programmatic”.

I learned that some advertisers were spending 30% of their budget just on buying audience data from third parties, but that this doesn’t need to continue in the podcast world, because we know who is listening. I learned that podcasts have an incremental audience, very different even to digital audio like radio. The panel highlighted that podcasting doesn’t necessarily need to answer the same things other digital media do when it comes to advertising.

I stayed in the room and rolled straight into the second presentation: “The Unstoppable Rise of the Visual Podcast”. This panel consisted of Mike Newman, VP of production and content at Audio Boom, Beth Heard, Head of Talent at 16th Management, and Jordan Theresa, host of the podcast Voicenotes, which has a strong visual component.

Newman asked her what she refers to Voicenotes as, given it has always had a video element, and is consumed largely on YouTube. “Just a podcast”, she replied. He casually asked the audience to raise their hand if they’d agree. A safe bet for some early audience engagement, he probably thought. The air was full of silence but empty of hands. I’m surprised that for a convention that seems attract so many futurists, this room was full of audio traditionalists. Newman asked what we would call it instead. A couple of people shouted out. “A video”, “a show”. He swiftly moved on, claiming it doesn’t really matter what we call it, but apparently a third of podcast listeners consume a video podcast at least once a week. This statistic seems crazy to me. I have no idea where they got these data from, but I wonder whether this includes people who only consume video podcasts, perhaps only one per week. I try not to be an audio-only supremacist, but I would not describe this demographic as “podcast listeners”.

Beth Heard informed us about “the funnel” – the process of moving audience from TikTok, through to Instagram, then to YouTube, and finally to your podcast. As they filter down these layers, the audience gets smaller, certainly, but it also gets more engaged.

Having a podcaster on the panel alongside their manager struck me as an odd dynamic. It is almost like baby-sitting. Indeed, Heard was quick to shut Theresa down regarding her advice to just chuck a lava lamp in the background and call it a day, protecting her job by insisting more thought needs to go into visual podcast branding practice than that.

The panel praised Emma Neal and Saving Grace, while warning against the form of video branding Diary of a CEO employs, arguing that, despite its success, it is unlikely to work as well for an independent start-up. They also acknowledged that not every podcast would benefit from a visual element. A notable example they gave was Serial, which Heard describes as “the Marvel Movie of our industry”. It is mildly comforting to me that this show is still regarded as a champion of the medium nearly 10 years on.

Matthew Randell standing below a sign reading "The Podcast Show 2023".

Matthew at The Podcast Show 2023

The third panel on my agenda was “The Revenue Pillars of Podcasting”. I was hoping to hear about the relative merits of relying on advertising versus crowd-funding, either through Patreon or a self-owned subscription service or even being paid for platform exclusivity. I was sorely mistaken; James Cator guided a panel comprising of Imriel Morgan, Isabel Woodcock, and Nick Witters through 45 minutes of talking exclusively about securing advertisements.

I found some of the presentation slightly depressing

To be fair to them, it does seem to be the most ubiquitous way of earning a living by, or at least breaking even on, podcasting. And the panel was good! Morgan and Witters provided vastly different experiences of the podcasting industry, which made their convergent conclusions seem even more reliable: be consistent and don’t post anything you would be embarrassed to send to a brand. They also explained that podcasters can use dynamic inserts to make it clear that it’s not you personally endorsing a brand, if it’s a product/service you haven’t used yourself.

I found some of the presentation slightly depressing. Especially when Witters spoke. He seemed polite enough when addressing his fellow panellists, but had a Joe Rogan-esque Americanness about him that I found slightly off-putting. Everything he said came back to money or numbers. That is his job, to be fair again. He told me that I have to think about it holistically. “The show you make if you want to make money will be very different to the show you make if you’re just very passionate about a very niche interest”. This was unfortunate news.

Again the choice of panellist combinations was slightly odd, as Woodcock works for a marketing agency, and is not a podcaster herself. This made the room feel slightly awkward as Morgan and Witters revealed secrets on how to get one over on the marketing execs while sat two feet away from one. Still, she also had useful insights. Namely, she lamented that podcast distributors aren’t speaking the same language – they all market their things differently and it can be very confusing to potential buyers. She also passionately predicted that audiodramas will boom in popularity over the next few years, and described such podcasts (with good storytelling) as “the HBO of our industry”.

Endearingly, Morgan was especially encouraging in terms of supporting smaller creators. She revealed that getting your foot in the door with a brand is a great way to negotiate better deals in the future. One way she advocated for doing this is to get an affiliate deal – these allow you to make money even with very few listeners. She spoke at length on this topic, dropping advice ranging from asking for way more money than you really expect – “ask for twice as much. If you’re black and a woman, ask for three times as much” – to always replying to the same thread, or at least putting “re” at the start of the subject line to show the brand that you’ve had a conversation before, to make them more amenable to a deal with you.

The panel went on to briefly touch on diversifying your income through developing a franchise. They spoke about merch, TV, tours, etc, which is sort of what I was hoping to hear about, but the way it was framed – using a podcast as another avenue to market yourself as the product – made me uncomfortable in ways I am still struggling to articulate. Sometimes I just want a podcast to be a podcast.

The final panel of my day was the big one: “BBC & Spotify: What Content, Which Platform, And Whose Audience?”. I’ve had beef with Spotify for a long time and hoped this convention would finally be my chance to confront the brand directly. Unfortunately, they were notably absent from the show floor, instead taking down questions/comments at the entrance to a roped-off members-only longue upstairs, where they assured me an email will address all my queries.

The panel was a fascinating peek behind the corporate veil

The BBC may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of podcasting giants, and that is precisely their problem. In fact, Jonny Kanagasooriam and Mary Hough, Head of Content and Head of Performance & Delivery respectively at BBC Sounds, addressed many of the issues recently highlighted by The Boar’s Thomas Bartley. They largely lauded the reshuffling and creation of the BBC Sounds brand as a success, boasting that they have reached double the peak of iPlayer Radio.

The panel was a fascinating peek behind the corporate veil, allowing the audience to glimpse how these two companies see one another. Matt Deegan facilitated well, but even he was unable to keep the vibe too amicable. I definitely overinterpret, but Hough’s statement of “we want BBC Sounds to be the best place to listen to BBC audio. Not the only place, but the best place” read to me like an unsubtle dig at Spotify’s approach of paying creators for exclusive distribution of popular podcasts.

The message the panel seemed designed to put across is that the two giants aren’t above working together – BBC Sounds admits to needing Spotify’s large audience, but insists that Spotify also requires the BBC’s podcast content. The representatives from BBC Sounds also seemed keen to emphasise that the BBC is a trusted brand – that its editorial judgement is reassuring, and that it is committed to its public service mission, something Spotify is not restricted by.

Rowan Collinson seemed relatively reserved, sticking to a few specific talking points. He is the Global Functional Lead at Spotify’s Podcast Editorial department, so far from unqualified to be on the panel, but I do wonder if his decade-long career working at the BBC had more to do with it. He spoke briefly about the companies working together going forward and so during the Q&A I introduced myself and asked how Spotify as a company reconciled this apparently collaborative spirit they seem to have adopted with the isolationist exclusivity deals they offer. Collinson gave a relatively vague answer along the lines of how in this industry, your strategy needs to change nearly every week. I find the blasé nature slightly baffling but it does seem to indicate, at least to me, that Spotify is abandoning platform exclusivity as a strategy. This has since been further evidenced by Emma Chamberlain’s podcast resuming wider distribution, and represents an important step in the reconciliation between Spotify and the scarred podcast landscape.

There was a distinct lack of fun at this event

As the only Spotify employee I had found willing to reluctantly engage in conversation, I approached Collinson after the panel but he was being hounded for a video interview by other reporters and was quick to walk away apologising. I found him again later, wanting to ask whether there were plans to allow listeners to import RRS feeds to Spotify. After some initial reluctance, involving an “I think you can already, can’t you?” (you cannot) and explaining that he too used to partake of student journalism, he gave a genuine answer about how it is difficult to incorporate RRS feeds because of the ways Spotify works, re-hosting podcasts in its back-end.

Overall, I learned a lot from these panels, but there was a distinct lack of fun at this event. Perhaps I expected too much from a convention focused on branding and growth and other business features. I’m sure the event was massively helpful for business professionals working in the podcasting industry, but there was relatively little on offer in terms of actually creating a good podcast. In fact, I just can’t help but feel that some of the organisers and attendees have lost their way slightly, focusing more on the relationship between podcast producers and advertisers than on podcasters and podcast listeners.


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