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Pocket Casts acquired by a consortium of public media organizations

That's a big deal.

Pocket Casts acquired by a consortium of public media organizations

In case you missed it: Pocket Casts, a well-regarded third party podcast app, has been jointly acquired by NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ, and This American Life. The announcement was made yesterday.

Pocket Casts, which was owned by an Australian mobile app developer called Shift Jelly, will operate as an independent company separate and apart from any of the organizations that’s part of the joint acquisition. An NPR spokesperson told me that the company will not operate as a non-profit.

Current Pocket Cast founders Philip Simpson and Russell Ivanovic will keep leadership roles in the company, but the public media consortium has tapped a new CEO to lead the app: Owen Grover, a former EVP and General Manager at iHeartRadio and former VP of Programming and Marketing at Clear Channel. The commercial radio veteran will report to a board made up of Simpson, Ivanovic, and execs from WNYC, WBEZ, and NPR — which, as the press release puts it, “ensure that it operates in a manner consistent with our mission-driven ethos.”

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, though it should be noted that WNYC’s investment was partially made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the philanthropist Cynthia King Vance, who is the chair of WNYC’s board of trustees.

A couple of things about Pocket Casts:

  • It’s a genuinely great podcast app that’s widely known and liked by radio producers (and from my understanding, some tech writers and VCs).
  • The app is available for both iOS and Android, and syncs very well between both mobile platforms as well as its web version, and it has pretty solid filtering and playlist creation systems that helps power users like myself scan and tame my subscriptions really well.
  • Also worth noting: Pocket Casts has its own version of the Apple Podcast Front Page, and I’ve heard anecdotes from a few indie producers over the years about the effects of the Pocket Casts Bump. For what it’s worth, I used to be a heavy Pocket Cast user myself, and I’ve occasionally found stuff I would otherwise not have discovered off that front page.

Let’s talk market share. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin (who, really, produced the most useful write-up on this development):

Pocket Casts accounts for about 2% of the downloads and streams of podcasts, according to Podtrac. Both NPR and WNYC said that Pocket Casts accounted for a larger share of podcast listening than PodTrac’s estimates, but declined to provide specifics.

The app’s business model is a one-time payment: currently, Pocket Casts costs $3.99 to download. However, one should expect the probably of change, as a spokesperson told me that the new leadership team “will assess the business and revenue model for Pocket Casts over the coming weeks, with the goal of ensuring the platform remains financially sustainable. Decisions about the fee model will be made as part of that process.”

That said, over at Shift Jelly’s blog, the founders are promising a fundamental sameness (but with more resources) despite the appointment of a former iHeartRadio exec as the new CEO, a new set of owners and board members, and a rapidly shifting environment. They write (playfully): “…as of today, nothing has changed. Going forward things are going to be different. We’ll be moving faster, we’ll be more ambitious in the things we do and we’ll have some amazing insights from the top podcast producers in the world to help guide our future steps. I mean if you’re not excited by that, then you’re just not hooked up right.”

So that’s the view from Pocket Casts’ side. But what’s public media’s angle in this? Ben Mullin’s piece in the Wall Street Journal quotes WNYC chief digital officer Nate Landau saying “that the coalition of public media organizations wants to create a platform for independent creators to distribute and monetize their work.” Landau also added that “they’re interested in applying the public radio membership model to podcasting writ large.” Makes sense, though it’s a pretty strange, then, that the consortium acquired Pocket Casts and not RadioPublic, which has been explicitly focused on adapting public media-style systems for the podcast environment and has already secured financial and strategic backing from WGBH, a major public media organization.

Anyway, the thing that really stands out to me about all this is a fundamental lack of clarity around the communication of the big picture game plan. For what it’s worth, I’m generally pro-public media getting more aggressive about growing its technological footprint and capacities, but as I mentioned over Twitter, I don’t really get the move here. Not that I don’t think public radio shouldn’t be in the business of acquiring a podcatcher — I do think there are a few strategic gambits in this arena that could really work for the public radio system’s benefit — I just think that, in its current form, I don’t see how Pocket Casts advances public radio.

Of course, we’ll learn more over time, as I imagine the consortium will actually figure out a strategy over time, but the flipside of that lack of clarity is the production of speculative anxiety among various stakeholders in the space. Since the announcement, I’ve heard worries across the spectrum, from “Pocket Casts is going to start deploying intrusive user tracking” to “What if they start featuring their own shows over others.” Based on Pocket Casts’ history and current messaging, it looks like they’re going to work to keep things as they are and as relatively fair as they currently are, and I have no doubts about that. But things will change, and new pressures will come. And so, to figure out the long-term strategic viabilities of those commitments, you really need to know what the end-game is. And at this point in time, the end-game is very fuzzy, which makes it infinitely harder for everybody watching this development — some who have practical or ideological stakes, but are indirectly connected to the team and therefore have no real insight into what’s happening — to hold onto a sense of trust.

So these are the key pieces of the story that I’m digesting right now. I’m planning to explore this further in Tuesday’s column, where I’ll try to organize it under broader questions about where, exactly, the public media consortium could — and perhaps should — take this.

But first, some odds and ends:

  • For what it’s worth, I’ve been hearing about this acquisition for quite some time now. In fact, I was almost certain it was going to be announced around the last Third Coast Festival, and had, at a few points, believed it wasn’t going to happen at all. But here we are.
  • I don’t know how much of Pocket Casts’ listening share was on the Android, but great timing on the acquisition, now that the Google Podcast stuff has been announced.
  • Unless I’m mistaken, this is the second acquisition of an Australian podcast company by an American entity. The first is the company now known as Megaphone.
  • Found this quote in the WSJ piece from NPR Chief Digital Officer Thomas Hjelm super fascinating: “We need multiple shots on goal to address this delivery/distribution/discovery challenge… And I see this as another shot on goal.” Somebody watches soccer! Or hockey?
  • Let’s not forget about NPR One. Will have more on that Tuesday.

Okay, more soon. Let me know what you think!

One more tidbit…

Earlier this week, I tweeted out this WWD story about Disney getting into the business of launching podcasts, which, at the time, contained the quote: “Kathryn Ferrara, head of branded content at Disney, said ad spending on podcasts is projected to hit $19 billion by 2022.”

It has since been clarified to: “Kathryn Ferrara, head of branded content at Disney, said ad spending on the audio category, including podcasts and smart speakers, is projected to hit $19 billion by 2022.”

Which is still pretty ridiculous. Where the fuck did they get those numbers?

Anyway, as a reminder: that IAB podcast ad spend report listed $220 million in 2017, and we don’t have 2018 numbers just yet. There’s an infograph from eMarketer floating around citing projections that the spend will be $326M in 2018 and $534M by 2020. That infograph sources Bridge Ratings which, as I’ve mentioned before, I have reservations about.