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Conan O’Brien makes a $150 million podcast deal

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And Spotify opens the gates to political advertising once again

Amazon Prime Video’s “Upload” Season 2 Premiere - Arrivals Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic

After bottomless headlines about podcast licensing deals, I guess getting acquired is cool again. Or maybe Conan is just tired. I’m tired, and I didn’t even spend three decades as the “good king” of late night. On that note, I will be out for the next few days, so send all pitches and thoughts to Jake (nice ones, please!!).

SiriusXM acquires Conan O’Brien’s podcast network

So much for sticking to mid-tier deals, SiriusXM (though kudos on the misdirection). On Monday, the audio giant announced it has acquired Conan O’Brien’s production company, Team Coco, and locked the comedian down in a five-year talent contract. At a reported $150 million, the transaction is by no means the industry’s largest, but it’s a callback to the kind of M&A that was happening before top podcasters embraced licensing agreements.

Team Coco, which was established in 2010 shortly after the end of O’Brien’s ill-fated run on The Tonight Show, has become a podcasting force thanks to the success of its flagship show, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. Edison recently ranked the show at number 26. The network has also expanded to include popular series from stars like Why Won’t You Date Me? with Nicole Byer and Literally! With Rob Lowe, the licensing rights to which now belong to SiriusXM. According to the company, Team Coco brings in 180 million downloads a year.

“Conan has built an amazing brand and organization at Team Coco with a proven track record of finding and launching compelling and addictive podcasts,” Scott Greenstein, SiriusXM’s chief content officer said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to grow the Team Coco brand.”

As top podcasters like Joe Rogan and Alex Cooper choose to maintain ownership of their brands and instead license their shows to streamers for eight or nine figure sums, O’Brien is an outlier. His deal is most reminiscent of Spotify’s 2020 acquisition of Bill Simmons’ The Ringer. Like The Ringer, Team Coco is a multi-podcast outfit that is still highly dependent on its main star. Spotify has managed to hold on to Simmons more than two years on, giving him additional responsibilities as the streamer grows its international sports programming. The Team Coco deal gives SiriusXM five years to figure out how to keep O’Brien, or expand the brand to the point it can stand without him.

If the nature of the deal was surprising, SiriusXM’s pursuit of O’Brien was not. Team Coco had a longstanding distribution and ad sales deal with Stitcher, which SiriusXM acquired in 2020. The audio company has bulked up its podcast offerings as its flagship service has hemorrhaged subscribers. But the company is looking to O’Brien to help in that department as well — the deal entails a new, exclusive Team Coco channel on SiriusXM.

Still, like other SiriusXM deals, this acquisition is about ad sales. SXM Media will also sell ads for Team Coco’s digital video, social media, and live events. And Team Coco podcasts will remain wide releases, available across major podcast platforms to maximize their audience.

Ok, now off to Jake for some other items…

Marc Maron signs with Acast for ad sales

SiriusXM may have locked down a big one with Team Coco, but the company is losing a big one this week, too.

Acast announced this morning that it’s signed a three-year agreement to be the exclusive ad-sales partner for WTF with Marc Maron. This is a big get for Acast: Maron’s show hits 55 million listens per year, according to the announcement, making it one of the top shows out there. Edison research ranks it as the 29th biggest show of 2021, just a few slots below Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.

WTF will be distributed and hosted by Acast under the deal, with bonus content and the show’s archives offered through Acast Plus to paying subscribers. The show’s archives were previously offered through SiriusXM-owned Stitcher Premium, but those episodes will be pulled down once the Acast deal starts on July 1st, Acast spokesperson Ryan Hatoum tells The Verge. Acast hopes to make the WTF subscription about more than old episodes, though. Hatoum says “a lot of” the show’s back catalog will be opened up to the public, and the subscription will instead be promoted by offering special content like Q&As and live events. New episodes of WTF will remain widely available and continue to be published twice a week.

Like SiriusXM, Stitcher has announced a number of exclusive ad-sales deals and hosting arrangements in recent months. Acast’s roster also includes shows from Anna Faris and Margaret Cho, plus deals with major networks like the BBC and BuzzFeed. WTF is by far the biggest single title that I’m aware of, though, adding a top name to its ad sales ecosystem.

Spotify brings back political ads on podcasts

Spotify will once again allow political ads to be purchased for US candidates, parties, PACs, and elected or appointed officials — and they’re coming for podcasts. Protocol reported yesterday that political ads are making a return after Spotify shut down sales of them in early 2020 (any idea what was happening around then?) over its lack of ability to “responsibly validate and review” ads, the company said at the time.

Now Spotify tells Protocol it has spent two years “strengthening and enhancing” its systems to — similar language alert — “responsibly validate and review” political ads. So the company has started spinning up sales again for third-party shows, reaching out to partners to sell ads that can appear “across thousands of podcasts on and off Spotify,” according to Protocol. Spotify is reportedly promising the ability to target ads to podcasts that discuss issues relevant to the candidates, which could make for a fairly powerful ad offering. (The ads won’t run on Spotify’s free music tier, at least for now.)

An important caveat for podcasters: you’ll have to opt in to political advertising, so you can remain out of the fray if you want. Political ads will also only be offered through direct sale for the Spotify Audience Network — aka, you need to talk to a sales rep and can’t use an automated system — and the company has put protections in place to validate who those ads are coming from, Spotify spokesperson Erin Styles tells The Verge.

“We have strengthened our political advertiser in-house verification process to ensure that advertisements are only being purchased by US entities with US funds,” Styles says. Spotify won’t accept ads for advocacy issues or ballot measures. Styles said political ads will still be held to Spotify rules prohibiting “deceptive, false, misleading, or fraudulent content” and “content that attempts to manipulate or interfere with election-related processes.”

Of course, the context for all of this is that midterm election season is approaching, and there’ll be a whole lot of ads to sell. Major online platforms have gone back and forth on how they want to handle political ads in the past couple of years; Facebook, for instance, banned ads ahead of the 2020 election, then brought them back just a few months later. The stakes are much higher in an election year, though, so Spotify has a critical window here to make sure its systems are blocking any bad actors before advertising really heats up.