Pretty simple one this: are we significantly undervaluing (or misvaluing) host-read advertising on podcasts?
The thought for this short call-to-arms came when I was listening to Pivot, the New York magazine podcast hosted by tech veterans Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway. At the opening of the most recent episode, I had to listen, for the millionth time, to Galloway reading out an advert for an electric car. In his distictive West coast drawl, Galloway extolled the merits of some random, non-Tesla electric car manufacturer.
Now Galloway is a very successful entrepreneur and investor. I would be very surprised if he were not a millionaire, several times over. On a basic level he doesn’t have to shill these products.
But, of course, the show, Pivot, and its parent organisation, New York magazine, do not have the same financial security. And so they have to sell advertising as the most direct revenue stream. And it has been recognised for many years now, in the podcast industry, that the only way to generate significant advertiser revenue is to run host-read adverts. What do I mean by that? Well, rather than hearing a whooshing sound effect and a voice actor narrating how “smooth the noiseless ride of the Hiltonmobile is”, the advert would instead be read in the voice (and, often, the tone) of the podcast hosting it. The idea is that the recommendations feel more intimate — more real — and because they are aurally more aligned with the body of the content, it’s harder for users to skip. I slipped into Galloway’s advert because I wasn’t sure where the advert ended and the show began.
As a result of these industrial preferences, the CPM (cost per thousand listens) for host-read adverts is significantly higher than standard adverts. Additionally, an advert that has Scott Galloway championing some electric car can only run on an episode of Pivot — it can’t be inserted as part of a programmatic package into a thousand different shows — and therefore it’s necessarily more bespoke. That bespoke nature also guarantees that the soliciting and contracting of these “host-read” adverts will likely always be reserved for podcasts with an audience in excess of 30,000 listeners per episode. So it’s the premium end of podcast advertising.
And yet, I can’t help but put myself into the mindset of the host, the journalist, at the heart of the production.
There has long been an expectation that if you’re hosting a successful podcast, whether you’re a gun for hire (Bruce Springsteen is playing in the pub where I’m writing this) or the project’s owner and progenitor, you’ll eventually do voice adverts. I used to work at a magazine and found it very odd that senior and serious journalists, whose work often tackled social and political ills, would be handed a script for, say, HSBC or Beer52. “Mmm,” they would have to say, “that’s one deliciously zingy IPA!”
More troubling host-read proclamations would go something like: “XXX major international bank is committed to data security and you, dear listener, should definitely open a current account with them!” And these were the clients on the package with the highest level of oversight (a level that excluded, for example, gambling or crypto products). But whether they like it or not, these serious journalists (many of whom no longer work for that publication) have been preserved, for ever, as voice actors and spokespeople for banks and beers.
So here’s the thing: if you’re a host and you’re asked to do a live-read advert, you need to think about what that says. Because it’s not as simple, for listeners, as it is for the purse-string holders. If you read out an advert for a car or a financial service you are involved with that product. Just as David Tennant is involved with Chase, Dawn French with Terry’s Chocolate Orange, or George Clooney with Nespresso. That is not part of your job (unless you have a very modern contract).
If you are asked to do this, and you are not already in a revenue-share agreement with your employer, then I think you must negotiate a larger share of that advert’s income. Ultimately, the product being sold with host-read ads is the voice, authority and reputation of the person speaking that advert; the audience reached by the podcast itself is secondary (hence the significant difference between the price of host-read adverts and ordinary programmatic adverts). Podcasting is in an unusual space here: any print journalist would be appalled if asked to include an endorsement of HSBC in the copy of their editorial, just as a news anchor would find it abhorrent if cutting to adverts meant they had to put a McDonald’s baseball cap on and start selling Big Macs. The host-endorsement is unique to digital media — it reminds me of Joe Rogan shifting Athletic Greens or, worse, InfoWars selling weird vitamin supplements — but mature shows at prestige brands have no reason for falling for it. The brands that advertise on Pivot are getting a far cheaper Scott Galloway voiceover than if they’d gone through his agent, I’m sure.
As an industry, we continue to push host-read advertising as the future of monetisation, and that’s certainly been the direction of traffic. But perhaps there hasn’t been quite enough scrutiny of what that means. What that means for the employment contracts of the people expected to read these adverts. What that means for the editorial impartiality of the show. And what that means for the multi-platform distribution of that content. We are not miles away from a reckoning on this, in one form or another.
The rising CPMs for host-read adverts are often held up as a sign of the increasing financial seaworthiness of the podcast industry. But what if it doesn’t signal that? What if, rather than being a demonstration of an increasing clout, it’s actually a demonstration of the fact that podcasting is still a medium that advertisers can exploit? A medium where they can get deals and access to privileges that would be unthinkable on TV or radio or print? What if, in our rush to commercialisation, we sign away our credibility?