An estimated 46 million Americans listen to podcasts each month, according to Edison Research, with shows covering topics as varied as the latest Apple rumors, how best to confront the Islamic State, and the analysis of old Seinfeld episodes.
But while independent producers and celebrities like Joe Rogan and Marc Maron have largely dominated the scene since Apple integrated podcasts into iTunes in 2005—at the time, Macworld described podcasts as "time-shifted amateur radio"—a growing number of large companies, including General Electric, IBM, and Slack, have now launched a number of podcasts of their own with names like "Wild Ducks" and "Variety Pack."
This raises a few simple questions: Namely, why are these multi-billion dollar companies getting into a medium long dominated by hobbyists and comedians? And more importantly, are brands about to take over podcasting?
It helps to first get a better understanding of how podcasts are doing nowadays. While Edison Research estimates that 46 million Americans now listen to podcasts, Todd Cochrane, the CEO of podcast tracking and analytics firm RawVoice, estimates that there are around 100 million unique podcast podcast listeners globally—a number that will likely grow alongside the increase in smartphone penetration. It was the rise of easy-to-use smartphone apps like Apple's Podcasts, Downcast, Overcast, and Pocket Casts that helped propel the medium's growth over the past few years, according to Cochrane.
"Podcasts aren't mainstream yet, but they are moving into the mainstream," Cochrane told Motherboard in a recent phone interview. He should know. He's hosted a tech podcast called Geek News Central since 2005, and his shows typically get around 120,000 listens a pop. "More and more people," he said, "are beginning to understand the power of the direct relationship that podcast hosts have with their audience."
It's this vast and rapt audience that big brands are now chasing.
Bill Macaitis is the Chief Marketing Officer at Slack, the fast-growing chat startup that has more than 1.7 million daily users. The company in May launched Variety Pack, a twice monthly podcast that largely resembles NPR's "This American Life." The podcast, which has so far gotten about two million listens across all 15 episodes, "helps expose the Slack brand to more people."
"Slack itself has grown by word of mouth," said Macaitis, who's a self-described "big podcast nerd." "A big part of that growth is because of the product itself, but an equally big part is because of the brand's positive reputation."
The best podcasts, reasoned Macaitis, "aren't trying to sell you something," and that thinking informed how Slack modeled Variety Pack, which is an eclectic mix of stories related to how we work in 2015. (Recent topics include why baristas mispronounce customers' names and the weirdness that occurs at office holiday parties.) Macaitis notes that Variety Pack listenership has grown with "just about" every episode since it launched in May, gently spreading the gospel of Slack to more and more people with each passing episode: Each episode begins with a brief message inviting listeners to visit slack.com "to change your working life forever," followed by the service's familiar notification alert sound.
Other brands that have also gotten into the podcast business in the past few months include General Electric, which in October launched a science-fiction podcast called The Message, and hotel chain Marriott in May launched one called Wandernaut, which, like Slack's Variety Pack, also discusses work-related topics.
And then there's IBM, which first considered getting into podcasting in the fall of 2014, according to Ann Rubin, IBM's VP of Branded Content and Global Creative. "When we discovered that podcast listenership was up, we thought, 'How could we not experiment in this space?'" Rubin told Motherboard in a recent phone interview.
The company's monthly podcast, called Wild Ducks, launched this past January, and focuses on "stories about innovation in science and business"—stories that just so happen to align with the products and services that IBM sells. IBM believes podcasting may help expose its brand to a generation of listeners who may not be familiar with the company that launched the PC in 1981.
"Brands are publishers now," said Rubin. "It's hard to get the message out to a broad audience, so if we can tell really interesting and really exciting stories to people who otherwise don't know about IBM then that's a good thing. It's OK that you personally are never going to buy an IT product from IBM, but now you have an understanding of what this company does in the world and maybe you'll talk about it to your friends."
Todd Cochrane, the longtime tech podcaster and researcher, does have some words of caution for brands that think they can merely will their podcasts to the top of the charters.
"Anyone can get into iTunes' New and Notable section," he said, "but the real accomplishment is building and sustaining a large audience. The real growth of podcasting will continue to come from the guy recording in his basement, even if all of the press goes to the big companies."