Issue 218,  published July 17, 2019

Podfront UK: A Local View

For as long as I’ve been observing the UK podcast scene (which is a little over half a decade now), I’ve always gotten the sense that everyone is waiting for the One Big Thing™️: the thing that will kick everything up a gear and make the podcast market here look more like the one in the US. Of course, there are plenty of issues with that mindset, not least the fact that the two countries are totally different in terms of scale and existing radio landscapes. Also, I have my scruples with the general idea of looking at the US to lead on everything — there are many different routes to success, you know? But even parking those issues for a second, opinions have always differed about what the catalyst for this leveling-up would be.

Some say what’s needed is a homegrown Serial-style megahit. For others, it is the founding of a bonafide UK podcast network. Still more have suggested that it would be the appearance of some major VC money for audio startups. There have been false alarms; like the excitement that bubbled up when Panoply flirted with the idea of a UK office making content back in 2016, and more recently when a pre-Spotify-acquisition Gimlet had one person in London scoping out the market. Understandably, these speculations have mostly been on the content side, with UK producers who listen longingly to the lengthy credits at the end of US shows hoping someone will show up who wants to give them a staff that big too.

Yet the thing that nobody has ever named to me is the thing that’s now happening: two major players in the US, Stitcher and Wonder, launching a joint venture to develop an advertising market in the UK for their own portfolio of shows. There’s a vague suggestion that some new content might follow in the future, but for now the focus appears tightly trained on a small team in London that’s been hired to sell the UK listens in the portfolios of those two publishers.

This is a big deal, though its immediate effects will be felt by those who already work on the commercial side in the UK rather than those in editorial. A frequent comment that I hear from those in sales, still, is the need for them to educate brands about the virtues of buying audio space before they can actually make a deal — this happens a lot less than it used to, but it’s still a big part of the job. That’s why that Dax report I wrote about in an Insider last week matters, because although there was noise about lots of brands increasing spends next year, that lingering requirement to introduce plenty more to the space afresh remains, and that’s a lot of work.

If Podfront, which will have a substantial inventory to fill and the advantage of booming US operations to draw from, can do some of the heavy lifting in this regard, it will be a major boon to everyone else trying to sell ads in the UK. There will also be secondary benefits, in the form of the potential for trans-Atlantic deals (i.e. if Wondery/Stitcher can convince any existing clients to invest in the UK market), and an injection of healthy competition as more deals are done.

All of this is going to take time. And the fact that the Podfront initiative seems to recognize that reality is encouraging to me — they’re not banging the door down with a slate of new British shows, but rather starting by enhancing what they already have.

In a way, the arrival of Podfront is a leveling up for the UK audio space, although it’s perhaps not quite the silver bullet that some of my correspondents dream of. Until now, US podcasts and networks with substantial English-language listenerships elsewhere (i.e. the UK, Canada and Australia) have just partnered with a local agency to handle sales, as Nick noted last year. Monetising some of those listens was better than giving it all away for free. But now the UK has grown to the point where it’s worth investing in a bespoke service, or at least that’s the calculation at the top of Wondery and Stitcher. For those still yearning for a wider, deeper space for professional podcasting in the UK, that’s not nothing.