Why some publishers are reducing their podcast slate to try to grow their audio businesses
From Spotify to NPR, podcast networks have cut their slate of shows. For some podcasters, reducing the number of shows they produce is part of a strategy to refocus their audio businesses on flagship podcasts to grow their listeners and revenue.
“We do see value in putting more emphasis on the franchises and core IP that have the potential to flourish and narrowing our focus a bit in that context,” said a podcast exec who traded anonymity for candor.
NPR’s podcast team has focused its efforts on fewer podcast shows, launching limited-run series within popular podcast feeds so as not to split its teams and listeners across multiple shows. And The Athletic has cut some of its smaller soccer club podcasts to put more resources into its flagship shows.
In June, Spotify canceled six shows and let go of 200 people, merging its Gimlet and Parcast podcast units into a combined operation — just one of many cuts it enacted in the past year. As part of Disney’s layoffs this spring, Marvel’s small in-house podcast unit of six employees was cut in half. NPR laid off 10% of its staff and announced it would cut four podcasts in March.
It’s certainly been a string of bleak news for a contracting podcast industry that ballooned during the pandemic. But as a result of budget cuts and the end of the “dumb money” era in podcasting, audio networks are consolidating teams to put more resources — including production, sales and marketing power — behind marquee shows.
“It makes sense that publishers would want to cut back and focus on high performers and prioritize quality over quantity of shows,” Maria Tullin, vp and managing director of advanced and digital audio at agency Horizon Media, said in an email.
Not all podcast publishers are taking this approach, however. Three podcast networks — including The Economist, CNN and Betches Media — told Digiday they have an active pipeline of new shows coming out this year, and are showing little signs of tapping the brakes on their investment in audio — or of the need to adjust for the contracting podcast market. And recent data from podcast search engine Listen Notes found 104,277 podcasts debuted during the first half of 2023, compared to 99,467 new podcasts in the first half of 2022, reported audio news site Inside Radio.
Meanwhile, NPR and The Athletic are each taking a “less is more” approach.
NPR consolidating podcasts into show feeds
NPR is consolidating its podcast efforts into fewer feeds and “moving away from multiple, individually staffed seasonal shows and prioritizing a more consolidated, signature long-form showcase,” said Yolanda Sangweni, vp of programming. As a result, ad revenue has grown for the series on its flagship “Embedded” podcast feed by 80% year over year, an NPR spokesperson said. However, overall podcast revenue is down at NPR, they noted. NPR’s CEO John Lansing said in February that revenues are likely to fall short by close to $30 million this year.
But NPR’s podcast audience is up year over year. In June 2023, NPR’s U.S. unique monthly audience was 18.5 million people, up from 18 million in June 2022, according to Podtrac’s ranking. NPR currently produces over 30 podcasts, an NPR spokesperson said. They declined to share how many podcasts NPR has compared to last year, citing difficulty in tracking this given the seasonality of certain shows. “The official number changes based on the number of limited run productions,” they said.
Sangweni said NPR was “splitting” its resources as well as its listeners. Given how “competitive” the podcast industry has become, NPR is focusing on fewer podcast feeds as channels to spotlight different shows, “rather than companies spreading themselves thin across so many multiple shows that are individually staffed,” said Irene Noguchi, executive producer of NPR’s enterprise storytelling unit.
NPR has consolidated its podcast teams to focus on adding new, multi-part documentary series in the “Embedded” feed, such as “Taking Cover,” “White Lies,” and “Love Commandos.” NPR has doubled the staff working on “Embedded” and “The Sunday Story,” which is distributed on NPR’s podcast feed for its daily morning show “Up First” to boost visibility among its current listeners.
NPR also recently started partnering with member stations to add their podcasts into its network without increasing investment in podcast production. Since these partnerships kicked off last fall, there are now about 120 shows from stations that have adopted NPR Network branding and participate in cross-promoting NPR and stations’ shows.
The Athletic cuts smaller shows to focus on flagship podcasts
The Athletic, The New York Times’ sports publication, has also cut down on the number of podcasts it is producing to focus on its popular soccer club shows. It has also adopted a more aggressive marketing strategy.
As a result, the average audience for The Athletic’s flagship “Football Podcast” nearly doubled per episode from the 2021-2022 season to the 2022-2023 season, according to audio managing editor Iain Macintosh, who declined to share the total size of the sports publisher’s listenership.
“There was a huge slate of club shows and that’s been compacted down. But I think we’re doing what we’re doing better, with more thought, more authority and still having the opportunity to try new things,” said Macintosh, who declined to share the total number of podcasts that were cut.
The Athletic’s U.K.-based international audio division sunsetted an undisclosed number of soccer club shows “as business objectives evolve,” a Times spokesperson said. Six club podcasts remain. The division is producing 14 total podcasts for the 2023-2024 season.
The Times spokesperson said there is no set criteria determining which shows get cut, but factors include audience size.
“While I think it would be a mistake to only focus on the top shows with the most downloads — as that leads to increased inventory pressure, high CPMs, and ultimately performance related issues on cost per KPIs — I think cutting shows that aren’t working and tightening up to prioritize high quality content is a win for everyone,” Tullin said.
Kristen Coseo, director of podcast and digital audio strategy at ad agency Ocean Media, said she hasn’t noticed podcast networks reduce their lineup of shows. “It’s been business as usual,” she said.
The Athletic also tested a new marketing initiative in the U.K. this year, where each week The Athletic picks one show and puts its full marketing power behind it, cross-promoting that show on other podcasts in its network and publishing stories around topics in that podcast. As a result, every show in The Athletic’s international podcast slate saw a “big increase” in its audience, many of which were “double-digit” increases, Macintosh said. He declined to share specific audience stats.
“At a certain point publishers should invest in titles that are profitable and drive conversions for advertisers. Ensuring that content quality is prioritized is a great way to accomplish that,” Tullin said. “As long as diversity in genres and content are not completely sacrificed, I think this is a natural and logical progression from the boom in titles we’ve seen over the past few years.”
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