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Serial 3, and Inside the ZipRecruiter Deal

In case you missed it: Serial is coming back for its long-awaited third season later this month. Announced last Wednesday, the news was well-documented by mainstream outlets like Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Elle, Cleveland Magazine, and the New York TimesI wrote up a preview for Vulture, too — but if you didn’t manage to get to them, here are the basics:

  • The season will drop its first two episodes on September 20, before releasing new episodes every Thursday.
  • It will dive into the infinitely complex topic of the American justice system by delivering weekly stories from inside the courts of the ordinary, everyday city of Cleveland, Ohio.
  • Emmanuel Dzotsi, a This American Life staffer and Ohio native, joins Sarah Koenig as the co-reporter for the season. Word has it that the dude moved to Cleveland for the past year to cover the courts.
  • ZipRecruiter will serve as the exclusive sponsor for the season. Public Media Marketing facilitated that deal.

Also: the new season sees Serial continuing its “exclusive streaming partnership” with Pandora. The same partnership was announced with Season Two, and back then, the arrangement caused some confusion: what does it mean to be a Pandora streaming exclusive when you can still download episodes with podcast apps? A rep told me: “According to Pandora, no other audio streaming services will have Serial. Since Pandora is the only streaming partner, Serial 3 won’t be available on Apple Music, Spotify, etc.” (That’s Apple *Music*, by the way, not Apple Podcasts.) This means a little more nowadays than it did back then, I think, as we’ve come to see increasing podcast-related activities from music streaming platforms. Still feels like hair-splitting, though, particularly as we continue to move down a path where everything seems to be converging anyway.

I’ve put together a story about the ZipRecruiter deal, but before we get to that, a quick thought:

It’s remarkable to look back at just how basic the premise behind Serial was when it was first announced in the summer of 2014. “What’s different about Serial is that it’s a story that takes a dozen or so episodes to tell,” This American Life chief Ira Glass wrote in a blog post from the time. “So each new episode brings you the next chapter of this amazing, unfolding story. Serial’s a podcast, not a radio show, because a podcast seems like a better place for a long story that you need to hear from the beginning.”

The pitch wasn’t a What, but a How — not the birth of something new, but an expansion of something that existed. How an emerging technology could contribute to the show’s ever-growing editorial ambitions. This American Life was almost two-decades old by that point, a period throughout which the show had continuously refined itself within the programming logic of linear broadcast radio: producing captivating multi-segmented hours designed to catch earballs foraging through the dial. If you missed a story, you missed it, but it’s okay: there’s another good one in a few minutes. Maybe you’ll bump it into that earlier story some day, if it reruns.

That was, of course, a limitation of the broadcast structure. And to be sure, limitations are productive: there’s that pablum people say about creative constraints, et cetera et cetera. But there’s a limit to the ambitions that every structure can accommodate: there may well remain many more frontiers for narrative storytelling on broadcast radio to discover, but there are some frontiers you just can’t reach with it. You probably can’t, for example, present a deeply complicated, nuanced, and novelistic multipart Southern Gothic about the extraordinariness of an ordinary life over the broadcast airwaves of, say, KOSU. Not efficiently, anyway.

It should be said that the growth, development, and flourishing of podcasting long predated Serial’s debut in the fall of 2014. But the explosive popularity of that first season nonetheless looms over a good deal of what came after: we continue to see it firmly alive in the minds (and hunger) of countless competitors, disciples, imitators to this day. In the end, the true heart of Serial’s intent, and legacy, can perhaps be phrased as such: what if ambition, but more?

Let’s start with the obvious question: is ZipRecruiter’s exclusive sponsorship of Serial’s third season the largest podcast ad deal to date? Let’s also be prudent and invoke a qualifier: is it the largest launch ad deal to date, given the existence of other deal types like recurrings and branded content?

“I don’t believe there has even been a larger podcast sponsorship in audience reach exclusivity term or financial commitment,” said David Raphael, the president of Public Media Marketing, who took the podcast out to marketplace. “Yes, there have been branded content programs contracted by brand sponsors, some of them quite good. That said, I’m confident that to date none have ever reached the size and scale of the Serial audience nor matched the content produced by Sarah Koenig and her team at Serial.”

And to answer the other obvious question: no, he could not provide specific numbers. Alas.

It is hard, of course, to fully verify a claim like this without having omniscient access to everybody’s books, and when dealing with a question like this, one must account for the fact that muscle flexing is part of the point of a given quote. For what it’s worth, I asked around, and though there were some qualifications, there was also a general consensus that this, indeed, is very probably the biggest deal to date.

In case you were wondering, how these things happen is pretty straightforward: Public Media Marketing sits down with the Serial team, discusses revenue goals, puts together a revenue package to sell, and brings it to potential advertisers. They ended up receiving multiple offers, but chose ZipRecruiter because, as Raphael puts it, theirs was “the most interesting.”

“It isn’t just about financial size,” said Raphael, when asked about what “the most interesting” meant. “It’s the ability to put together a mass reach package for a sponsor that wants ownership at a high level.” Kind of like what happened with Mailchimp and the first season, he added, though, admittedly, “as Bob Ross said, that was a happy accident.”

Interesting-ness, it seems, also translates to a willingness around creative collaboration. Though hosts Koenig and Dzotsi will not voice the ads — journalistic ethics and so on — Serial’s creative team will be contributing to the development on those advertising spots, with ZipRecruiter providing a good deal of freedom and additional collaboration around a multi-platform creative campaign.

On Thursday, ZipRecruiter tweeted out a preview of what that ad experience looks like: a show within a show called Road to Hired. The concept sounds reminiscent of the Ford ads Gimlet produced for Startup, though the question here, for me anyway, is tone-control: unlike Startup, Serial often deals with deadly serious material, and the thing to watch is whether the show will be able to toggle between its investigation and ZipRecruiter’s brand messaging without feeling too weird.

Anyway, I’m told that the deal’s exclusivity is based on a combination of time and impressions, and that it applies for every podcast distribution platform except for Pandora, which will have the ability to sell inventory around the show on its own platform to its own sponsors, provided they are not competitive with ZipRecruiter. Raphael expects the ZipRecruiter ads to run on the podcast for at least six months.

Some readers wrote in noting the fact that ZipRecruiter, a long-time direct response advertiser on podcasts, ended up headlining Serial’s highly anticipated third season feels a little underwhelming, especially given the industry’s overarching pursuit of brand dollars. I find the situation curious as well. We’ve seen numerous major brands begin invest in branded podcasts and host-reads — surely those advertisers have warmed up enough to put up numbers for something like Serial by now, right?

Raphael evoked the sense that we’re still very much in uncharted waters with a package like Serial’s third season, which commits to Big Numbers out of the gate and asks for Big Money in return. “Candidly, when you’re selling a podcast package of this size and scale, it’s a little unprecedented,” said Raphael. The reality, he argues, remains that legacy advertisers are still dipping their toes, and they continue to grapple with prevailing doubts: “One of the issues we face a lot — and this goes back for years — is that large, traditional brand advertisers still think podcasts are not able to reach hundreds of millions of impressions.”

“We can do that [consistently] now,” he said, pointing to the podcast’s first two seasons and its spin-off, S-Town.

In any case, Raphael added, focusing completely on brands is besides the point. “I’m not one of those reps who believe brands are going to be the whole future of this industry,” he said. “Direct response advertisers are still going to be a big part of it — in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem, you need a good mix.”