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The podcast wars will come down to ad tech, not exclusive content

The podcast wars will come down to ad tech, not exclusive content


iHeart Media acquires Triton Digital for $230 million

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Photo by Alix Diaconis / The Verge

iHeartMedia, the company behind podcasts like Stuff You Should Know and hundreds of radio stations across the US, announced today that it’s spending $230 million to acquire a platform many people outside the audio industry have likely never heard of: Triton Digital.

Triton Digital specializes in audio ad technology, particularly for live radio broadcasts and podcasts. The company is able to insert ads dynamically, meaning they’re tailored to the individual listener on the fly, and create its own podcast rankings based on access to third-party podcast networks, like NPR. Essentially, iHeart can now take on an even bigger role in the audio advertising space, both in selling and programming ads.

This news suggests ad technology will determine who ultimately cashes in on audio. We’ve already seen this point play out in other recent acquisitions. Spotify bought Megaphone, a hosting platform with a dynamic ad insertion marketplace, in November, and SiriusXM acquired Midroll, an ad-serving marketplace and platform, in July.

Spotify’s made the biggest splash in audio over the past couple years with flashy acquisitions of podcasting networks and deals with big name stars, like Kim Kardashian West and the Obama family. But the exclusives route isn’t necessarily panning out. Joe Budden, one of Spotify’s original exclusive shows, left the network when his contract expired in September to instead make his show available everywhere, along with bonus, Patreon-only content. Michelle Obama’s show, which was widely hyped as a major exclusive get, also now has its first season available everywhere.

Exclusive deals garner headlines and attention, but when it comes to succeeding in the medium to long-term, ad sales will be key. Brian Kaminsky, chief data officer and president of revenue strategies at iHeart, tells The Verge this acquisition allows the company to create the equivalent of Google Ad Manager for audio, where advertisers can be paired with all kinds of audio programming to meet their goals. For iHeart, data on shows, ad purchases, and ad programming will happen on one united backend. (Kaminsky clarifies that iHeart will still employ and rely on a sales team, not just a digital marketplace.)

“We will have the only complete ad technology stack for all forms of audio, so broadcast, streaming, podcasts, voice audio content experiences,” he says. “That puts iHeart in a position literally to serve the audio advertising needs of every customer possible, and not just the sort of enterprise class customer that you think of when you think of the big agencies, but all the way down through to the long tail of small businesses and people who were using self-service platforms to buy video and display and social from the likes of Facebook and Google.”

Although Google has entered the podcasting industry through its Google Podcasts player, the company only mentioned serving audio ads as a beta feature in August last year. The company says it’s exploring more ways to monetize audio, however, and will have updates.

Of course, as it goes with acquisitions, Triton’s existing customers might now be put in an uncomfortable bind. Entercom, an iHeart competitor that runs radio stations around the US, is a customer of Triton, for example, as is NPR and others. They might not want to put their money in iHeart’s pockets. Kaminsky says Triton will remain separate from iHeart with its own management and tech teams, and he points out that iHeart already operates three other companies that do business regularly with competitors with no issues.

“Obviously, we’re going to be sensitive to people’s concerns, we’re not going to just be cavalier about it, but I think that most folks in the audio community are going to see this as a good thing,” he says. “iHeart has been a staunch supporter of broadcast radio, of companionship audio, of audio as part of the community, as opposed to audio that’s driven exclusively by technology, and I think that the players in the audio space will see that and will continue to avail themselves of the technology and services that Triton provides.”