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Will Ferrell, Shonda Rhimes, Questlove Creating Podcasting Slates

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Yes, true crime podcasts are still big, but they don’t dominate the medium like they used to.

The annual IAB Podcast Upfront is the perfect place to gauge how the medium has changed in the previous year, and in 2019 podcasting is a bigger business than ever. While the Podcast Upfront is geared to advertisers and features encouraging stats about ad effectiveness, it also offers a portrait of a medium that's still growing and attracting new listeners.

In the entertainment industry, nothing succeeds like success, which is why previous Podcast Upfronts launched one show after another trying to be the next Serial. There are still plenty of true crime podcasts—Midroll said the genre dominates its top ten list—but the next wave of podcast productions will highlight personality over narrative, and many of these shows will be packaged in advertiser-friendly limited seasons.

Several of today's high-profile announcements were celebrity-driven. TV producer Shonda Rhimes appeared on video to promote a deal with iHeartMedia that will bring a slate of a dozen or so podcasts to the network over the next three years. Tonight Show drummer and podcast veteran Questlove appeared in person to announce that he'll also bring a slate of podcasts to iHeartMedia (explaining that he wants a platform where he can "nerd out and bother the living crap out of people"). Jad Abumrad of WNYC explained how he got access to Dolly Parton for his just-launched and already highly lauded podcast Dolly Parton's America. Ira Glass of This American Life visited during the Authentic portion to say that “narrative shows get the same kind of audience that binge-worthy network shows get" because they provide the same satisfaction. The day’s biggest in-person guests, Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey from The Office, promoted their just-launched Midroll series Office Ladies, where the share behind-the-scenes stories from the set.

Will Ferrell appeared on video (and in clown makeup for no particular reason) to announce a major podcast deal he signed with iHeartMedia. Ferrell will continue to inhabit his Anchorman character Ron Burgundy on The Ron Burgundy Podcast, and will create his own comedy podcast empire. Called the Big Money Players Podcast Network, the venture will launch 10 podcasts over the next two years, some by friends of Ferrell and others by new comedy talent.

In opening remarks, Zoe Soon, vice president of the IAB's Mobile Marketing Center of Excellence, said 22% of adults in the U.S. age 12 and above listen to podcasts weekly. Soon after, Hernan Lopez, founder and CEO of Wondery, said the number was 1 in 3. Whichever the case, the medium is still growing and hasn't begun to plateau. The medium’s strength is its intimacy, presenters said, which is why listeners respond to podcast ads—especially if they’re read by the hosts. Some companies stressed the dynamic ad targeting they offer. None mentioned how they’ll respond to the California Consumer Privacy Act which takes effect January first.

An afternoon session by Edison Research presented fresh data on what it calls “super listeners,” meaning those who listen to 5 or more hours of podcasts each week. According to Edison, 22% of Americans age 12 and over are weekly podcast listeners, and 28% of that group qualify as super listeners. Many in this group actively avoid ads on other mediums (18% are serious ad avoiders, said Tom Webster, senior vice president for Edison, as they subscribe to commercial-free video and audio services and don't watch pay TV), but they still appreciate sponsors on their favorite podcasts. In a note of caution, he warned the industry against oversaturation: 49% of super listeners say they’ve noticed podcasts have more ads this year than they did last year. So while listeners appreciate the low ad load podcasts now have, that could change.

The Podcast Upfront might be far smaller than the TV or streaming upfronts, but it represents an industry that will be worth over $1 billion by 2021, IAB's Zoe Soon said. Or, as Erin Gibson, host of the Midroll podcast Throwing Shade put it, “If TV upfronts are the Mercedes of upfronts, podcasts are the Citi Bike."

Photo: Chris Jericho and Dave Rubin promoted their Westwood One podcasts at the 2019 IAB Podcast Upfronts.

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