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Deep Dive: Stitcher and Wondery Partners to Pursue Pounds

This news dropped came out last week, but it’s worth unpacking. The two podcast companies have launched a new joint venture called Podfront UK, which holds the express purpose of establishing a sales presence in the region to monetize the considerable UK-based listens experienced by both companies. I’m told that the UK represents the third largest English-language geographic market for Stitcher — after good ol’ Canada — and while Wondery didn’t provide specific market rankings, the circulated press release notes that the company reaches “millions of listeners” in the region.

Some noteworthy details to pursue: the venture will be led by Ruth Fitzsimmons, who will hold the title of managing director. Previously, Fitzsimmons was the SVP of International Operations and Content Partnerships at Audioboom, where she oversaw the growth of that company’s UK, Indian, and Australian businesses. The venture will kick off by building a team of eight people to rep Stitcher and Wondery’s shows in the UK, though the Digiday write-up noted that there are broad ambitions to build a content operation at some point in the future.

This development is a pretty big deal, I think. Podfront UK represents the most focused effort yet by a group of American podcast publishers to build out dedicated infrastructure meant to specifically extract revenue from a specific market outside of the US. Whether it’s the first such effort is debatable, given Panoply’s short-lived attempt to build out a UK branch of its editorial arm in late 2016, back when that company was still in the content business.

I’m still not sure what exactly befell that expedition, but whatever the case, the opportunity around actual UK podcast advertising revenue remains very much up for grabs. Previously, UK podcast downloads were generally lumped into the overall impression piles sold to American advertisers (which placed a cap on the efficiencies of those buys), and attempts by American podcast publishers to monetize their UK audiences mostly took the form of non-advertising revenues (live shows, merch, and so on). As podcast listens continue to grow across the globe, in some market more so than others, so will their value as sellable inventory. Somebody’s gotta make a sturdy enough bucket to catch that value on the up and up, and this might well be it.

Anyway, I spoke with Stitcher CEO Erik Diehn at length about Podfront UK last Thursday. I’ll run full version in Thursday’s Insider — it gets really wonky, and it touches upon podcast advertising trends more broadly — but here are a few key takeaways to consider for now:

(1) The decision to collaborate with Wondery, ostensibly a competitor in the US, was in part driven by the thinking that the combined inventory scale will be substantially more attractive to a larger number of advertisers, sponsors, and brands in the UK. It was also driven by a desire to spread the costs and responsibilities around. “There’s quite a bit of overhead in setting up an operation like this,” Diehn said. “It’s a lot of work, and two companies that overhead is more efficient than one. At least, at this stage of the game.”

(2) I was curious about the timing: why launch Podfront UK now, compared to, say, a year ago? Is such a business more feasible now than before? Diehn pointed to two things in response. First, the need for their technology and technical infrastructure to progress to a point such that they can partition and sell location-specific downloads more efficiently, and second, the need for the UK podcast industry to reach a point where they felt there was sufficient knowledge and demand for podcast ads.

(3) I asked if Podfront UK would eventually open up to allow participation from other US podcast publishers. “We’ve certainly discussed it,” said Diehn. “The way the venture’s been set up, that would be feasible. I don’t know that we’re looking to add any actual owner partners to the mix right now, but we do see this as a first phase.” He did, however, definitely express interest in seeing the direction flow the other way: where Podfront UK could help sell inventory for UK shows in the American market.

So, there’s that. Caroline has a column on the development from her point of view on the ground in the UK, but before we get to that, I just wanted to ask out loud: has anybody done this for Canada? Hmm.