Online magazine Slate's original foray into the world of podcasts dates back almost to the origin of the medium itself; its first one launched in July 2005, just one month after Apple dropped iTunes 4.9, the first version with native support for podcasts. So it came with little surprise when Slate announced plans to launch a podcasting network of its very own, Panoply, last year.
The goal, says Panoply CEO Brendan Monaghan, was to reach about 18 to 20 podcasts by the end of the first year. Sixteen months later, Panoply's library boasts nearly 100 offerings—including the General Electric-sponsored "The Message," which earned two Gold Lions and one Bronze in Cannes last week, and Malcolm Gladwell's in-season "Revisionist History," which currently occupies the number one spot on the iTunes podcast chart.
Folio: spoke with Monaghan to learn more about what's gone so right for Panoply, and what's behind the medium's recent explosion in popularity.
Folio: Why is now the "Golden Age of Podcasting?"
Brendan Monaghan: I think it really began in the Fall of 2014 when the Podcast app became native on iOS. Anytime we’ve seen larger tech shifts that make it easier for consumption, we start to see big bumps. The broader ubiquity of cell phones and data plans continues to grow exponentially.
The beauty of an audio delivery mechanism is that you don’t have to be visually captive. You can be driving your car or mowing your lawn or working out and still be consuming that content in a way that doesn’t require 100 percent of your visual attention.
Plus, frankly, a lot of great content from a variety of companies has just made the medium more compelling.
Folio: Has that growing ubiquity altered the profile of the typical podcaster?
Monaghan: That’s the way we look at it. If you look back ten years ago, when someone went to download a podcast, they had to plug their iPod into their computer, download a file, and it was kind of a complex process limited to people who were willing to spend the time doing it.
Over time, that became easier and easier. I think with the more common usage of smart phones, not to mention streaming data and streaming content, it really puts it at your fingertips in a way that has never been done before.
I think there are still some hurdles to clear. Audio is a unique platform. It’s not as ubiquitous as other things. People seem to either know and love podcasts, or they just don’t know much about them at all, frankly. There’s not a lot of middle ground. I think that’s an evolution we’ve seen and will continue to see.
Folio: Do you think bringing in someone like Malcolm Gladwell will help to draw in that non-podcaster?
Monaghan: That’s certainly the hope. I think a lot of things need to happen for it to continue to evolve. Having great content is one of them. Hopefully people who read Malcolm’s books, for example, will be compelled to take the extra step to listen to this content that isn’t available any other way.
I think there are other innovations, too. Apple making it native to their phone – and Google Play and Spotify getting into the game – makes it more ubiquitous. Even things like Amazon Echo are really exciting. They’ve got some great short-form tools for people to access audio clips. We’re really excited about all of those different directions.
Folio: Podcasting as a medium is obviously largely driven by sponsorships. What makes the podcaster an attractive audience for brands?
Monaghan: That’s a really good question. People in the podcasting space tend to say it’s the most intimate medium. It’s not a far reach to say that; it’s literally a medium that you place inside your eardrum. People become really connected to the shows and particularly the personalities that they listen to. They're waiting with bated breath for it to download.
That translates into the advertising medium, where it’s largely been direct response advertisers who have performance metrics to meet. They can see that a show really performs because people who listen to a show go to their website and enter in the code from that show. That’s really engaging.
I think that has been part of the appeal—the connection that the audience has with this really intimate setting. Going forward, from a brand perspective, people are seeing the opportunity to reach people and connect with people in different ways. We had some success last year with GE, working with them developing a science fiction series called “The Message.” That had really limited GE branding, but it transcended the need for explicit product placement because it was such a compelling show.
Folio: Was fiction something new for Panoply?
Monaghan: It was new in two ways: one, it was scripted, and two, it was brand-partnered. The opportunity to work on something so creative was really appealing to us. I think there’s a huge opportunity in scripted content. Naturally you’ve seen that with other shows that are out there and succeeding. Our forte has typically been conversational-type shows. Not all, of course, but that’s certainly been an area at Slate that we’ve felt like we’ve pioneered. Doing something scripted like “The Message” and working with a premium advertiser all the way was new and exciting.
Folio: What’s the nature of that process? Is there ever any conflict between providing sponsors with adequate branding and maintaining that intimate listener experience?
Monaghan: Well first, every show and every host has veto power over what advertisers appear on their program. That’s really important for their independence. Even though the messages are by no means required to be any kind of tacit endorsement, it is in their voice.
The other thing is the variety that the brands themselves are comfortable with. Do they want the host to hit these four bullets, specifically, or are they comfortable with a more free-wheeling, engaging style of format? Every brand is different.
Folio: Were you surprised that there was such huge advance demand for “Revisionist History?”
Monaghan: Naturally, when we had the opportunity to work with Malcolm we were really excited and optimistic. Anyone who expected a two-minute promo to go all the way to number one on iTunes was probably kidding themselves, to take nothing away from Malcolm. But that’s the power of his brand and his voice.
What’s fun about this project is that it’s a new medium for him and one that he hadn’t pursued before. Once he started doing it and realizing how you have to connect to a listener differently than to a reader, he had a lot of fun with it. He certainly brought a lot of energy and ideas and his audience seems to be coming with him for the ride. So it’s not necessarily a surprise, but its definitely an exciting realization.
Folio: Are podcasts a way to monetize influencers like Malcolm while avoiding many of the pitfalls associated with digital advertising?
Monaghan: We certainly think so. The ability to connect with someone like Malcolm Gladwell in a spoken-word format that isn’t necessarily just an audiobook, but involves new and creative ideas that have never been released before from his mind and his thinking—I think that’s particularly compelling to people.
So often, whether it’s television or radio appearances, it’s a little bit more of a one-way medium. In general, this is another way to engage with your favorite talent, whether they’re an actor or a comedian or an athlete or an author. It’s intimate, and frankly, it’s not insignificant that these things air on certain days and certain times. If they’re not there when they’re expected to be there, people are really frustrated and disappointed.
Folio: You mentioned that there are still some obstacles ahead for podcasting as a medium. What are some of those challenges?
Monaghan: I think there are a couple. The industry itself needs to come to some sort of consensus on what the metrics are that matter to listeners, to advertisers, to publishers. You have different organizations and different networks having downloads in different formats, and that’s something that we’ve got to come to a consensus on. There needs to be some consistency so people know that it’s apples-to-apples across the board.
I think the other thing is discovery. Apple does a really nice job of highlighting interesting shows and content, but that’s only one way to do it. I think the medium will benefit from people continuing to iterate on discovery, because there’s so much good content out there.
It’s shown improvement, but just by the sheer number of people who said they listened to a podcast in the last month—the number is under 25 percent. That shows you that there’s a lot of room to run in the space.