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Pandora’s Podcast Genome Project Enters the Wild

Sydney Pollack had a great line in Michael Clayton where he wags his finger at George Clooney’s down-in-the-dumps fixer protagonist saying: “Fer chrissakes, Michael, you’ve got something everybody wants. You have a niche!” That line popped into my head when I initially heard Pandora was planning to graft its famed Music Genome Project onto the podcast universe. I mean… it makes sense. If the company was going to start properly distributing podcasts, this would be the way in. It’s great to have a niche, a thing only you have in the world. If you were born with a hammer for an arm, why wouldn’t you smash everything?

This morning, Pandora’s podcast offering, powered by the “Podcast Genome Project,” begins rolling out public beta access to select listeners on mobile devices. Chances are, you probably won’t see it yet. That’s because the feature will first appear to about 1% of users before progressively expanding out over time. But it’s coming, and you can find the landing page here.

The beta rollout comes shortly after Pandora hired its first podcast chief, the lawyer Lindsay Bowen, formerly of Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP, and about two months after SiriusXM announced that it was going acquire the company. It also comes almost a full calendar year after Roger Lynch, who became Pandora’s CEO in September 2017, first signaled his intent for the streaming music platform to get seriously involved in the podcast ecosystem in an interview with Variety. That intent doesn’t come out of the blue, of course. As some avid readers might remember, Pandora had deployed two significant experiments with spoken audio in the past: the first being a streaming partnership with Serial and This American Life, and the second being an original production, the weekly podcast Questlove Supreme.

“The goal is to do something similar to what we’ve done for music over the years,” said Chris Phillips, the company’s Chief Product Officer, when we spoke over the phone last week. “To provide effortless discovery that’s also personalized.” Something similar, but not the same. Phillips tells me this isn’t a situation where existing technology is simply refashioned to fit a new context. “More like same concept, different tools,” he said.

The Music Genome Project is a fairly well-documented artifact, but to briefly explain the thing: it’s a technologically-facilitated effort to break songs down into component elements that can then be grouped to create meaningful clusters of contiguous listening experiences where new songs can be effectively served. Some of these elements are technical (tempo, musical families, etc.), others are more conceptual (genre, “female singer-songwriters,” etc.) Creating those clusters is a mostly technologically-automated process, but Pandora houses a team of musicologists that’s tasked with helping to form better epistemological rubrics. The team is “small but mighty,” or at least that’s how Phillips describes them, and the arrangement illustrates the marriage of technology and human expertise in pursuit of an edge in user experience. Very utopian, but also, concordant with a suspiciously familiar philosophy underpinning the enterprise: the belief that you can quantify and codify something previously considered subjective to unlock some higher level of achievement. (Alternate hed: Moneyball, but for music. Musicball?)

On the surface, the Podcast Genome Project exhibits much of the same skeleton. Podcast episodes are said to be ingested, transcribed, and analyzed for taxonomical elements that are then grouped into discovery clusters. In our conversation, Phillips talked about things like content topics, themes, energy level. (Two examples given: “true crime” and “animated conversations about cooking.”) But the podcast skeleton won’t seem to feature the same heart: there’s no spoken audio equivalent of a small but mighty musicology team pumping blood and wisdom through the whole system. Instead, there will be a more conventional group of human beings tasked with providing curatorial guidance and quality assurance. (So, antibodies.) That absence of an expert “podcastology” team — oh god I’m so sorry — is noteworthy, and I think probably crucial: it may well be the determining factor in whether Pandora’s podcast discovery technology will actually be revolutionary, or merely additive.

Nonetheless, I fancy the notion. Though I remain unconvinced that podcasting has an existential discovery problem (once again, I’m more of the unpopular opinion that it has an existential marketing problem), having another vibrant space to learn about new podcasts is undeniably a good thing for both publishers and listeners. Plus, for a podcast publisher, accessing potential new audiences on Pandora would theoretically require little more than plug-and-play, given the technologically-facilitated nature of the whole thing. Which is, you know, pretty dope.

Of course, the True Promise is for the listener, and all the unique consumer adventures that an effective Podcast Genome Project can potentially create. The platonic ideal of the Pandora experience is something that sits firmly between the paralyzing freedoms of on-demand and the punishing captivity of linear radio. Take music, for example, which is something I enjoy tremendously but simply do not have much bandwidth to do my own research. My life on Spotify is perhaps best described as a complete failure of imagination: the same playlists, the same albums, the Top 40 charts, over and over again. On the other hand, commercial radio is a straight-up hellscape: more ads than music, and when you do get to the tunes, it’s the same ten songs ramming your eardrums, because that’s how you make stars, right? The promise with Pandora is essentially better radio, featuring a scalable human-machine cyborg curator instead of the more specific hit-or-miss taste of a mortal DJ. Or worse, the capitalist imperatives of the music industrial complex.

Forgive the fan fiction, but: in theory, with Pandora, you’d have a situation where a listening session of, say, The Woj Pod leads me to efficiently surface and sample other (weirder) hoops podcasts like Horse and Buckets that I otherwise would have to plumb the murky depths of Google search results to learn about. (As an aside, a potential abstract measure of discovery gambits like this would be its ability to elevate “weird podcasting.” Note to self: revisit this idea later.) Upon discovery, I would be in a position to engage in two follow-ups: first, I can add them to my “collections” — which is Pandora’s way of functioning like a straightforward podcast app — and second, I can give it a little thumbs up to help Pandora learn more about the stuff I like. Table stakes stuff, really, especially in the age of tech companies knowing more about me than my mother does. But given that podcasting is still an internet mosquito preserved in amber in so many ways, it’ll be cool to see those standard tools applied to podcasts at scale.

Alright, publishers, let’s talk brass taxes. There are a few important things to note.

First of all, there is some trickiness around what will be included in Pandora’s podcast offering, at least for now. The product enters public beta with a series of launch partners: APM, Gimlet, HeadGum, Maximum Fun, NPR, Parcast, PRX+PRI, reVolver, Slate, The New York Times, The Ramsey Network, The Ringer, WNYC Studios, Wondery, and Libsyn, plus This American Life and Serial. Which is to say, Pandora isn’t sporting an open platform, and inclusion depends on a series of discussions and negotiations. For now, to be distributed through the platform, you need to either be part of the aforementioned list of publishers, or be hosted on Libsyn. A spokesperson told me that not all content partners available on Pandora are listed in the press release, and that it’s still a dynamic process at the beginning of the beta launch. Definitely expect more inclusions over time, but for now, I’d check with my hosting provider to see what’s up, if I were you.

Another front to watch: monetization. Pandora’s podcast product enters public beta without any advertising tools, which are still being developed with the intent of rolling out sometime next year. How would podcast advertising on Pandora work? The details are still being worked out, I’m told, but Phillips discussed a potential scenario where it comes down to whether a publisher has an advertising deal with the company. In this hypothetical future, if a publisher does have a deal with Pandora, then the platform will strip the mid-roll ads baked into their episodes and swap it out with whatever podcast advertising experience the company comes up with. (The company is currently building the necessary tools to allow for those strip-and-swaps.) If not, those mid-rolls will be preserved. Again, this is how advertising might work, and Phillips notes that the company is in close contact with various podcast companies to figure out the best way to execute these relationships.

Publishers will also get enhanced analytics of whatever listens happen on Pandora, including episode completions, audience demographics, and so on. Again, table stakes stuff, podcast mosquito in amber, etc. etc.

For good measure, I asked about how the platform will handle content policing. (I was thinking, specifically, of The Alex Jones Problem that popped up over the summer.) Phillips acknowledged that this is a tricky hot button issue. “We try to be thoughtful and balanced,” he said, when it comes to the broader issues of censorship and policies. They do, however, have strong policies around hate speech.

Finally: original content. I’m told that there are no immediate plans for more original Pandora podcasts beyond Questlove Supreme… for now. “Watch this space,” Phillips said when I raised the question. Which, you know, sounds like they’re definitely going to do more stuff at some point in the future. I mean, come on. Spotify’s doing it, Google did it at one point, iHeartMedia literally bought a whole podcast company to keep doing it.

So, will Pandora’s Podcast Genome Project end up being a significant boost for the podcast industry, or will be slow on the take, as in the case of Spotify? Obviously, I have no idea. More broadly, it’s been a long time since I bought stock in any flashy narratives about new “inflection points” for podcasting. Every time I see something that makes a little voice in my head go “this could be big,” I try to take the voice out back and bury it beneath the shed. (It’s just good practice.)

Still, there’s something about Pandora’s Podcast Genome Project that strikes me as particularly interesting, if only because its approach seems genuinely untested at scale within the context of podcasting. (NPR One is a good test case for this, I think, though its usage remains a fraction of Pandora’s, even if it’s growing quite reliably.) As such, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was the thing that could well bring podcasting to a new place, even if I won’t buy into the possibility right this second. But even if it doesn’t, I won’t be blaming Pandora for under-cooking the pursuit. They have a niche, a place in the world. And they’re leaning into it.