It seems like such a no-brainer, it's hard to believe it didn't happen five years ago: Internet radio service Pandora is moving into podcasts. The 10-year-old company said it will distribute the second season of the wildly popular podcast Serial when it debuts (the premiere date has yet to be announced). Pandora listeners can start catching up on season one on November 24.
Pandora and the creators of Serial, a This American Life true crime spin-off, will split revenue from ads placed by Pandora, according to the New York Times.
Ad revenue aside, the Serial team is getting one undeniably huge perk out of the deal: access to Pandora's massive audience. The 12-episode first season of Serial was a smash hit, breaking iTunes records, blowing past 40 million total downloads in its first two months, and propelling the art of podcasting closer to the mainstream than it has ever been before. In April 2015, the investigative nonfiction series became the first podcast to win a Peabody Award.
As impressive as all of that sounds, podcasting has yet to fully catch on with mainstream listeners. On average, each episode of Serial's first season was heard a few million times. When season two launches, it will be available to Pandora's 78 million listeners, many of whom likely have never subscribed to a podcast.
Pandora isn't the only audio streaming company to notice the potential of the podcasting craze. SoundCloud got into this game a few years ago, and in May, Spotify announced that it would start streaming podcasts as well. These streaming companies join the likes of Stitcher Radio, Overcast, Pocket Casts, and Apple's Podcasts app in giving listeners a way to find and subscribe to podcasts. Even Product Hunt is jumping on the bandwagon by launching a dedicated podcast discovery forum.
All of these new distribution channels are bound to ensure that the first season of Serial marked merely the beginning of podcasting's rise to mainstream prominence. With 78 million listeners tuning in from a wide range of devices, Pandora could wind up being a huge boost not just for Serial but for podcasting as a medium. Indeed, the company is already planning to make episodes of This American Life available as well.
Podcasting is a logical next step for Pandora. For years, the company has slowly chipped away at terrestrial radio by offering personalized, artist- and song-based Internet radio stations, curated by a blend of human intelligence and data science. But for a company determined to disrupt "radio" as we know it, the lack of any spoken-word, public-radio-style content seemed like a glaring omission.
From a strategic standpoint, this deal could hardly have come at a more opportune time for Pandora: In addition to the explosion of interest in podcasts, there's also been a proliferation of Pandora-esque Internet radio products in recent years. Everyone from Apple and Google to Spotify and Rdio has copied Pandora's core functionality, launching "radio" features sporting artist and song-based stations and up-or-down thumb voting mechanisms. While none of these bolted-on features has taken a noticeable bite of out of Pandora's numbers, the widespread availability of this type of Internet radio functionality puts more pressure on Pandora to make its service as comprehensive and useful as possible.
As a bonus, this move lets Pandora add a new source of content and ad revenue without the complexity, controversy, and high costs of licensing that come with streaming music to millions of people. If Pandora's podcasting foray goes well—something that will be determined in large part by how the podcast experience is integrated into Pandora's existing apps—this could give Pandora a new source of revenue with fatter margins. Like its recent acquisition of Ticketfly, it could help Pandora diversify revenue while it figures out how to minimize the crippling costs of music licensing and ward off a growing army of big-name competitors.
In the music streaming business, it's rare to see a strategic move that satisfies shareholders, listeners, and creators alike. But if executed properly—and if the podcasting hype holds up—Pandora's podcast play could do exactly that.