One of the key differences between podcasts and typical morning radio shows is that podcasts focus on niche topics, while radio shows focus on a broad range of current events and pop culture topics. With podcasts, people initially seek out the show for the topic, then return time and time again because they enjoy the hosts. For radio shows, the topics are secondary to the personalities.
When speaking to radio broadcasters about podcasts, I have often stressed the need to focus on a niche topic. But when we have that discussion, we're talking about individual shows. Should we also be following that advice when talking about podcast networks?
Lately, we've seen a number of companies try to claim the mantle of “the Netflix of podcasts.” Of course, Netflix offers numerous unrelated titles, and every day seems to be adding new ones. These titles also come and go. Often they pop up on other streaming services like Hulu and Amazon Prime. I have all three of these services, plus HBO, and it's gotten to the point where I can't keep track of what's on which service. I know Friends is about to move — or did it just move? — but I honestly couldn't tell you where it's going. At this point, the only thing that enables me to find the movies and TV shows that I want is the voice search capability of my Roku remote. Without it, it would probably take me ten minutes to find John Wick 2 or Better Off Ted.
There are thousands of movies produced each year, but only a few hundred if you count the ones that receive a theatrical release. By contrast, there are several hundred thousand podcast out there, with new ones launching every day. If I can't keep track of which movies are on which streaming service, how am I ever going to keep track of which podcasts are in which network?
This may prove to be a hurdle for subscription networks aiming to recreate Netflix' success in the podcasting space. I may really like one premium podcast that's behind a paywall, but it doesn't follow that I'll like all of the other unrelated premium podcasts behind the paywall — at least, not enough to justify the cost of a monthly subscription. As it turns out, my taste in podcasts is far more narrow than my taste in movies and television shows. I'll watch a superhero flick, a documentary, and a sitcom, but most of the podcasts I listen to focus on a small range of topics.
Which raises a question: Would subscription podcast networks be better off diving deep into a single subject matter rather than casting a wide net with a variety of subjects? After all, we've seen this trend in television, where big networks with a variety of shows like NBC, ABC, and CBS, have slowly ceded ground to niche cable channels like the SyFy channel or the DIY network.
While podcast networks that focus on single niche topics would have less of an audience to draw from, that audience might be more willing to pay for the shows, and — in some cases — might be willing to pay a LOT more for access to those shows.
Andreessen Horowitz seemed to endorse this idea in a recent report analyzing the podcasting space for potential investors. When explaining what they look for in investment opportunities, they said:
“Since the large incumbents seek content that appeals to their large user bases, they’re less focused on seemingly niche, in-depth content. We also believe that for certain high-value content verticals, there’s potential to shift the burden of payment to businesses, schools, or other organizations — rather than on to end consumers.”
Moreover, a network that focuses on a specific niche may also be more attractive to some advertisers. Home Depot is a perfect match for podcast network about home improvement, while Revlon would be a great match for a fashion network.
The podcast space is still very young, and it will be years if not decades before we fully understand which revenue models perform best. But I suspect that the quest to become “the Netflix of podcasting” may not be a lucrative as it appears at first blush.