Having to explain what a podcast is in a professional setting may not be a new experience to many Hot Pod readers. There are the more direct versions of this, where you need potential guests to understand where their interview will be broadcast or you’re answering a query at a family gathering as to why you spend so much time with headphones on. But there are also more indirect versions of this scenario, which might come up if you work in an industry other than podcasting, and you enjoy listening to shows and you feel like your colleagues could be leveraging audio but aren’t.
This is the situation Lauren Passell found herself in. Until a few years ago, she worked as a social media director at the publishing imprint Little Brown, mostly focusing on Facebook ads and engagement for authors such as David Sedaris. Off work hours, though, she spent a lot of time listening to and thinking about podcasts. Although it wasn’t part of her job, she couldn’t help noticing that podcasts didn’t seem to feature very much in the way publicists were thinking about how to get attention for new books.
“I noticed that our PR teams weren’t really doing good outreach for podcasts, and honestly it just wasn’t a big deal,” she told me over Skype. “No one thought it was important and I did.”
Occasionally, when she felt there was an overwhelming case for pitching one of the authors she was working with for a show she liked, she’d do it herself. “It wasn’t even my job, I loved doing it. I was constantly thinking about it. . . But even when I would land something, I don’t think anyone really cared.”
Intending to get more professionally involved in the podcast industry, she took up a job at WaitWhat, the content incubator behind shows like Masters of Scale and Sincerely, X (which raised $4.5 million in Series A back in February, by the way.). She left the role earlier this year, when she decided to move on an idea for a company of her own: a publicity agency that would fill the knowledge gap at traditional publishers by building profiles for authors through podcasting. That business has been operating for a few months now, and is called Tink.
Passell describes her overall mission as “bridging the gap between publishing and podcasting”. When she first started, she thought that most of her work would come from authors directly. “Basically, I thought at first that authors would just reach out to me individually if they felt like they weren’t getting good podcast coverage. I thought that publishing houses wouldn’t want to work with me because they already have PR departments. But I found the opposite to be true.”
She’s already been hired back by Little Brown to work on a book campaign, and thinks that it’s completely understandable that an already-overstretched publicity team would rather just hire in podcast expertise than devote precious internal resources to it. Part of her pitch is her depth of knowledge of the podcasting space — when traditional publishers are trying to place authors on podcasts, she says, they’re mostly hitting Marc Maron’s WTF and not much else.
“But I see the gold in the tier right underneath those [big] shows and there’s hundreds of thousands of them. And I mean these are the shows that want to work with me and they have great, very large audiences and they’re very niche and they have great interviews because there’s no time limit,” she said. The often-discussed intimacy of the relationship between podcaster and listener works very much in an author’s favour, she believes — a longform, discursive interview will contain more reasons for the audience to pick up the book afterwards than a quick news hit on a TV show, say.
Passell’s idea for what the agency would do on day one — basically acting as an interface between already-published authors and podcasts they might guest on — has broadened as she explores the space further. “Someone I’m working with isn’t even an author yet, but she’s a chef with a very interesting story — she’s a Sri Lankan chef who started food truck in Kentucky and it got super famous. I’m helping her and I’m hoping that I can get her book someday and also on some podcasts.” Using podcasts to build a profile before doing a book deal, it turns out, is also a service people want, as much as the other way around.
Part of what interested me about Passell’s venture was what it indicates about how traditional publishing houses relate to podcasting. While we’ve seen some experiments with audio-first book deals from Audible, and some book publishers (like Macmillan) putting out podcasts based on their titles, it seems like there’s a lot of unexploited potential still within the industry. For now, the easiest solution while publishing is grappling with change on all fronts (audiobooks, bulk discounting, digital sales, etc), is just to contract in someone like Passell to extract value from outside opportunities like podcasting while the staff team focus on what are typically deemed as “core” areas.
But what happens when publishers start to wise up and begin to include audio properly in their regular publicity operation — where does that leave Tink?
“I already see a humongous difference in how much [publishers] care about podcasts but I still don’t notice a big uptick in the shows that they’re reaching out to,” Passell said. “I don’t think the problem is that now they just need to get hip to podcasts. I think it’s too overwhelming for them to really do it themselves. I don’t think that that is going to change unless they can start hiring people in-house to do this. I think it’s such a humongous world that they’re not going to be able to cover podcasts unless something huge changes.”
The challenge for Passell is to so successfully own the potential connection between authors and podcasts such that, even if a publisher is able to find the salary for a full time staff podcast publicist, Tink’s offering (in terms of contacts and pitch hit rate) would still be competitive. That’s a big ask for a small, newly-formed company. It’s a business model that relies on big publishers feeling the pressure of rising costs, but not enough such that it will respond to secondary opportunities quickly.
I feel like we see this pattern around podcasting a lot, as a nascent media industry, where a basic knowledge gap and a slow pace of change elsewhere can be exploited by a new breed of third party service providers. (See, for instance, all the new “private feed” companies that have appeared recently.)
In simple terms, if you still have to explain to your boss what a podcast is, you might be able to make some money by selling that answer to others in the same position. But as corporations wise up, the niche that those new companies fill gets smaller and smaller — and survival depends on not only offering an equivalent service, but a better one.