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A Look Ahead: The Ever-Expanding Podcast Industry

Podcasts have experienced a major boom in recent years and are emerging as one of the most popular forms of media today, with more and more creators, publishers and advertisers entering the space. In this article, Anne Kennedy McGuire, chair of Loeb & Loeb’s Podcast practice, discusses the current state of the podcast industry as well as what changes the future could bring.

Anne focuses her practice on podcasts; motion picture, television and digital media; and traditional and branded entertainment. She represents clients in a wide variety of areas, including evaluating, negotiating and drafting talent; development; production and licensing agreements for podcasts; scripted and nonscripted programming; and documentary films. She regularly negotiates domestic and international distribution agreements for significant television and documentary film projects as well as music programs and specials. Anne also assists entertainment companies and advertisers in negotiating sophisticated product and brand integration and placement agreements. She counsels a broad spectrum of clients in the television and film industries, including writers, directors, producers and production companies.

How is the current podcast industry developing?

The podcast industry is transforming every day. Since the start of the industry, there have been few barriers to entry, which makes podcasting easy and intriguing for many to pursue. For many creators, starting a podcast means having a content idea and a microphone. From there, programs can be uploaded to various distribution platforms. There are also independent podcast networks that focus solely on podcasts and curate and produce their own shows, as opposed to being an open marketplace and distribution platform for any creators. 

Growing out of audio blogs (hence the distribution via RSS feed), podcasts originally were fairly niche or a way for radio producers (such as WBEZ and NPR) to distribute content through a different medium. In the early days of the podcast industry, content creators typically controlled their podcasts. Today, podcasts are becoming so prominent that they receive attention from major media companies, which is changing the landscape of the industry, pushing it into the mainstream, and increasing celebrity and film and television producer involvement in the medium. Despite these changes, however, podcast creation is still relatively low cost and accessible for creators, with new podcasts emerging every day. 

What are the benefits of producing a podcast?

The most appealing benefit of producing a podcast is that it is largely inexpensive. Compared with television or film production, the production costs can be minimal to create a good podcast. Second, there are both large audiences for this type of content and very niche audiences for specific podcasts, and those audiences continue to grow. Podcasts are popular because they are convenient and very easy to consume on the go. Because of their growing popularity, we are seeing smaller creators being approached by larger corporate entities that are seeking new and different advertising opportunities. This brings in a new stream of revenue for the creators, allowing them to expand further, thus the growth of the many varied podcast networks.

As for brands, sponsoring and advertising on a podcast provides a direct outlet in which to reach their target customers. The nature of podcast advertising tends to portray itself as more native content, since oftentimes, the podcast host is directly pitching the product and giving out discount codes (which are trackable by the advertisers), as opposed to having recorded advertisements inserted like on the radio. By listening to the voice of a trusted host, there may be greater appeal to the listener, to the point where they are influenced to take action and purchase the advertised product.

What does the future hold for podcasting?

It is not too late to enter the podcast industry. We are seeing major studios and production companies developing podcast content related to their brands, including large, traditional entertainment leaders such as Netflix and Sony. Another emerging trend is companion podcasts, which are podcasts that release simultaneously with another production, such as a TV series, including HBO’s Succession and Chernobyl podcasts and Netflix’s The Crown podcast. The podcast will typically cover behind-the-scenes information or greater detail and theories about the show and serve as additional marketing for the show. Also, we’ve seen a rise in “re-watch” podcasts, such as Office Ladies, where Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey from The Office deep dive into their memories of the production of each episode and interview the cast and producers of the show, or Welcome to Our Show, where the cast of New Girl discusses each episode and gives behind-the-scenes information. In this way, a podcast becomes a relatively inexpensive way to extend the life and reach of more “traditional” entertainment properties, such as television shows and films.

Other areas of major growth have been the success of celebrity-driven podcasts and, especially, established companies acquiring podcasts in splashy deals. A few major recent deals include Joe Rogan’s $100 million deal with Spotify in 2020 for The Joe Rogan Experience, Spotify acquiring Dax Shepherd and Monica Padman’s podcast Armchair Expert in 2021 (reportedly in the $50 million range), and Amazon Music and Wondery acquiring Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes’ podcast Smartless (reportedly in the $60 million to $80 million range). These podcasts have large audiences, and the acquiring companies are banking on their ability to pull in both subscribers and significant advertising dollars. 

Additionally, with the success of highly produced series such as Serial, Radiolab and This American Life, podcasts are being taken more seriously and are becoming more sophisticated with greater production value, and we will continue to see more well-financed podcast series in the market. Whether a podcast is about a licensed property, is hosted by a well-known celebrity or is scripted and written by a well-known television or film writer, it will have added public appeal and be more common and widely distributed than ever before. With that said, the interesting aspect of this industry is that even with these larger, more established entrants, the accessibility and relative ease of development mean that there is still plenty of room for indie producers to enter the market. 

Another growth area, especially in the era of COVID-19, has been the long form, including movie-length podcasts such as Treat, which was a Halloween-themed “podcast movie” featuring Kiernan Shipka. With traditional forms of media such as film and television affected more drastically by COVID-19-related shutdowns, the podcast industry was able to take advantage and capture brand-name talent both on air and in its writing ranks.

Children’s podcasts have also seen huge growth, as parents have been seeking “safe” content for their kids. This medium will only grow with kids’ brands exploring more ways to reach their audiences and parents wanting to share it with their children.

Last, with more and more podcasts being produced, we will start to see more sales of libraries and catalogs as the content begins to accumulate. This will also affect the streams for licensing and distribution.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major effect on nearly every sector, the media and entertainment industry included. How was podcasting affected?

When the pandemic first hit, there was definitely some drop-off in listenership. This likely stemmed from fewer people listening on their commutes, as the work-from-home situation eliminated that time for many people. However, with more and more people confined to their homes, coupled with the lack of newly available media content, podcasts actually gained listeners. The new audiences that were gained from the pandemic have further solidified podcasting’s position in the media realm, and it is likely that growth will only continue from this point.

With so many shutdowns in traditional media forms such as television and film, the number of celebrity podcasts rose significantly during the pandemic. It was much easier for celebrities to both start their own podcasts and participate in scripted projects from the comfort of their own homes. Additionally, with the astronomical success of podcasts like Smartless with Bateman, Hayes and Arnett, many celebrities tried to jump into the game, and many podcast networks specifically sought out celebrities to host podcasts.

What excites you about this industry?

I love the creativity and intimacy of the medium. The way that podcast hosts can make you feel very much a part of the show and that the listener feels that they have a personal relationship with the host because they’re right there in their ears afford the medium a unique ability to reach its audiences. I also love that the industry allows creators to really run with their ideas, however unique and niche, from podcasts about favorite pens to podcasts about a host’s specific journey through a personal struggle and, of course, to all the murder and true crime podcasts anyone could want. The fact that the industry still has low barriers to entry, even with more players in the market, allows for so much creativity, experimentation and openness for so many different kinds of creators. I like that the industry values diversity of voices and allows listeners to find new and interesting creators without the financial risk of the more traditional entertainment industries.

What makes Loeb & Loeb a leader in the podcast industry?

We are a leader in this space because we’ve been working in it for several years and have really been on the cutting edge as it has expanded and grown exponentially. We have also worked with a wide variety of players in the industry, from major media organizations to growing networks to individual talent to brands looking to expand into podcasts and even podcast advertising networks. We’ve had the opportunity to see the business from every angle and really gain a deep understanding of these kinds of deals and this industry. It affords us a matchless perspective that helps us stay up to date in an ever-evolving and always creative sector of the broader market.

Additionally, Loeb is uniquely positioned to represent those in or wishing to enter the podcast market because of the breadth of some of the other entertainment and legal practices we have. I often utilize my knowledge to help with option agreements to turn podcasts into film or television productions and other exploitations of podcasts in other media. I also frequently call on my litigation, employment and corporate colleagues to assist the various needs of our podcast clients and assist our advertising and media colleagues in navigating their clients through their entry into the podcast world.