On the most recent episode of The Verge’s podcast game-show Converge (hosted by man-about-town Casey Newton), Pandora Media CEO Roger Lynch talked a little bit about the company’s thinking around its Podcast Genome Project initiative, which was first floated in the public earlier this year and has since, according to the post packaging the episode, “become a priority” at the company.
Here’s the relevant portion from the discussion (thank you transcribers!):
If you think about music discovery before Pandora, you might have listened to the radio, or maybe looked at the Billboard 100. There was nothing personalized about that. And then Pandora created personalized music discovery. That doesn’t exist in podcasts. You might look at a chart, or you might see what your friends are [listening to]. There’s nothing personalized about that. We’re building for podcasts what we did for music, which is the podcast genome. So that we can present to you, as a Pandora listener, a personalized experience that will delight you just like we do with music. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes. It’s something that we plan to launch by the end of this year.
Of course, the bit about the end-of-year timeline is super eye-catching, but it wasn’t the detail that most caught my eye. That honor goes to what Lynch said right after that:
If you think about podcasts, even though listening is growing fast, we think that there are two big problems. One is discovery. Gee, that’s a core strength of Pandora. And the second is monetization. Gee, that’s a core strength of Pandora. And so we think there’s a lot we can bring to podcasts and I’m excited about that launch.
So, a few things.
First of all, longtime Hot Pod readers might remember that we already have a bit of evidence of what Pandora can do with podcasting. Back when we were in the run-up to the second season of Serial, This American Life struck a deal that saw Pandora serving as the “exclusive streaming partner” for Serial’s two seasons along with the This American Life mothership show. “‘Serial’ is the biggest podcast in the world, but only 17% of Americans listen to podcasts at all. That’s why it’s so exciting for us to work with Pandora,” Ira Glass told Variety at the time.
The execution was… okay. As I wrote at the time:
The podcast may have been damn near impossible to find on the app’s search engine — I found it, oddly enough, under the “Stations You Might Like” section — but once it’s loaded, you are greeted by an interface showing that Pandora has segmented the episode so that you can, if you want, jump to different parts of the episode, the way you might with a DVD using the “Choose a Scene” feature. It is an attempt at making spoken audio skimmable, and one suspects that a big research question for the Pandora team is whether a significant portion of users end up interacting with this feature at all. That answer, unfortunately, is contingent on another question: whether people will use Pandora to listen to the podcast in the first place.
Here’s a screenshot of how that looked like:
The monetization aspect of that Serial S2 execution was a little more interesting to me. Sold against the new season was an ad campaign for the meh Chris Hemsworth-led film adaptation of In The Heart of the Sea, with Serial host Sarah Koenig doing the read, and if I’m remembering correctly, there was a visual overlay when the ad popped up.
Much has changed in the podcast advertising landscape since then, of course, with big brands being more ubiquitous among mid-roll ad reads. Still, Pandora’s podcast advertising execution was a curious thing, and at the time, it felt like a minor flexing of Pandora’s ad sales muscle.
Tangentially relevant: I’m vaguely reminded about an experiment Pandora performed not too long ago, measuring “consumer sensitivity to audio advertising” — in other words, just how big an ad load can you lay onto a listener before they leave the platform… or sign up for the ad-free premium subscription. Hit up this Quartz article if you’re looking for a summary.