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Spotify needed a huge podcast, and it just bought one of the biggest

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Why it matters that Spotify bought The Ringer and Bill Simmons’ podcast

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Spotify continued to prove it’s serious about dominating the podcast industry with an announcement today that it acquired The Ringer, a media company known both for its culture website and massive podcast operation headlined by The Bill Simmons Podcast. Now, Simmons’ show might instead anchor Spotify’s expanding podcast empire.

The acquisition rounds out a year in podcast-related purchases for Spotify. Almost exactly a year ago, the company bought Gimlet Media, a podcast network with shows like Reply All and Startup, and Anchor, a podcast creation app. Later in the year, it bought Parcast, a network that specializes in true crime and horror. Taken together, Spotify now owns programs related to sports, horror, and crime, as well as prestige series along with its celebrity-focused Spotify Originals, like comedian Amy Schumer’s show and Joe Budden’s. The audio company’s well poised to offer something for every listener.

Still, Spotify hasn’t done the most obvious thing yet, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these deals: move every show behind a paywall or at least behind a Spotify username. Instead, it’s mostly focused on growing its huge network both within and outside the app, possibly because there’s a lot of money to be made off of freely available shows.

In its earnings call today, Spotify said over 16 percent of its users now listen to podcasts, giving it plenty of room to grow. Its Ringer acquisition isn’t only about building a well-rounded, exclusive content catalog, however. The purchase hints at Spotify’s broader goals and how the Ringer’s assets could ultimately generate lots of money for the company.

Looking at its prior acquisitions, Spotify didn’t immediately move Gimlet shows to an exclusive model. Instead, it’s produced ancillary, exclusive content like Gimlet Academy and extra Reply All episodes while keeping the existing shows widely available. As for Parcast, the network created a daily horoscope audio update and a true crime trivia podcast under Spotify ownership, although those shows appear to be available outside the platform, too. The Ringer will likely follow similar suit with the big-name shows, like Simmons’ podcast, remaining available on other apps and newer shows becoming exclusives.

The Bill Simmons Podcast could perform for Spotify much in the same way The Daily does for The New York Times. The Times uses the show to highlight the paper’s reporting, elevate reporters’ voices, and promote other New York Times programming. It’s also a huge moneymaker. New York Magazine reported this month that the industry’s average CPM (cost per thousand listeners) is between $25 and $35. The Daily includes multiple ad spots, and more than 2 million people download each episode. NYM reported that the show rakes in more than $1 million per month, making it a marketing engine, valued audience reacher, and lucrative asset.

It’s unclear how many people listen to Simmons’ show, although The Ringer says it receives more than 100 million podcast downloads per month, and in 2018, its podcast revenue exceeded $15 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It’s easy to see opportunity for Spotify. A source close to the company says The Ringer will finish out its existing ad selling deals, but then shows will be given the Spotify treatment, meaning its internal sales team will sell their ads. It’s worth noting that Spotify serves podcast ads within its own shows regardless of whether a listener pays or not, meaning the company gets to double-dip on revenue for premium users.

Spotify has made its ad ambitions clear. Last month, it announced new ad technology that allows it to dynamically insert ads into podcast streams to target listeners based on their data in real time. That means the ads people hear on Simmons’ show could be targeted based on their demographic and geographic data, in addition to their music taste. “This is just the beginning,” said Dawn Ostroff, Spotify chief content officer, at the time of the announcement.

Spotify’s ad business could involve it selling ads for any show, regardless of whether it’s a Spotify exclusive, similar to businesses like Midroll. As for access to Spotify exclusives, ad buyers will have to work with Spotify to make deals happen and give their clients access to big names, like Simmons. Spotify’s setting itself up to be a critical part of the podcasting ads ecosystem with user data and exclusive content as a reason to work with them.

Of course, this brings up another point about Spotify’s podcast vision: all this data targeting could make listeners uneasy, as can a walled garden approach to the typically open podcast market. Spotify’s snatching up shows, gathering information about listeners, and making a name for itself in the business. There doesn’t seem to be much listeners can do about it, and with Simmons on board, the Spotify message can reach hundreds of thousands of people, making Spotify synonymous with podcasting.