When Game of Thrones was in its prime in 2014, I was really, really annoying about it. All I wanted to do was talk about the show and books, and I was running out of humans in my life who cared enough about it. Podcasting as an industry was far less developed than it is now, but there were still plenty of GOT recap and analysis pods to feed my obsession — some good, like Boars, Gore, and Swords and A Cast of Kings, and some very bad, which I won’t name because it was eight years ago and we are all different people now. They allowed me to obsess over details, criticize the show when necessary (which was often), and, maybe most importantly, kept me awake on my 4AM commute to MSNBC.
Inspired by grassroots recap podcasts, official podcasts for TV shows are now everywhere. Today, I take a look at how companion podcasts have become powerful marketing tools in Hollywood.
Plus, Spotify gets a new head of podcast tech and The Atlantic gives an inside look at Steve Bannon’s massive, but precarious, podcast empire.
Rise of the companion pods
Chances are, if there is a show you love (or hatewatch), there is a recap podcast for it. And the studios have caught wise. A few years ago, studios started making their own “official” podcasts as companions to their shows, and today, it can feel like every show is getting one: podcasts for Hacks, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and The Staircase debuted in just the past month. Producers say these shows are relatively easy to make, and they’ve become powerful marketing tools for studios, regularly hanging out at the top of Apple and Spotify’s TV & Film charts, and occasionally cracking the top 100 overall.
Companion podcasts aren’t the same as the homegrown stuff — they often have higher production values and bigger stars, thanks to their studio budgets, and they don’t exactly turn a critical eye to the source material. But listeners are still eating them up.
“These studios and showrunners of TV shows are simply trying to meet their viewers where they already are, and they’re already listening to podcasts,” says Will Malnati, whose company At Will Media has produced companion podcasts for Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV Plus. “So let’s not make it difficult for them to kind of attach themselves to something that gives them a little more behind the scenes.”
Behind the scenes content used to be a perk for those who bought or rented a DVD. If executed correctly, the podcast version can be an event in and of itself. For the second iteration of Succession’s podcast, HBO tapped journalist Kara Swisher to interview public figures like Mark Cuban and Anthony Scaramucci, in addition to people who worked on the show. The podcast peaked on Apple’s top 100 at number 16. And while the first season of The Problem with Jon Stewart reportedly had disappointing ratings, its more casual companion podcast has performed much better. It debuted at the top of Apple and Spotify’s charts last fall and lingered in the top 100 for months after.
“Podcasting affords us to go a lot deeper, and I think do so in a way that is cost-effective,” says Michael Gluckstadt, who worked on digital and video marketing content for HBO before becoming HBO Max’s director of podcast content. “Behind the scenes videos are expensive, you need entire film crews to do it … We put a lot of work into our podcasts and we do a lot of production on them. But comparatively, it’s nothing like videos.”
Not only are companion podcasts cheap, but they don’t have to make money. The Wire at 20, HBO Max’s look-back podcast at the critically acclaimed show, sits at number 87 on Apple Podcasts. Unlike basically every other show in the top 100, it doesn’t have a single ad, because ad money is not the point. The goal is to get fans who love, or once loved, the show to rediscover it and sign up for HBO Max (or at least maintain their subscriptions). A survey conducted by HBO Max found that 85 percent of those who listened to a program’s official podcast felt more connected to the show.
The podcasts also often go beyond the scope of talking about the show, and try to mimic other popular podcast genres. The first season of For All Mankind’s podcast was for space freaks, featuring interviews with astronauts and exploring the state of the space program. With Rebel Robin: Surviving Hawkins, Netflix created a fictional, in-universe spookcast starring Maya Hawke that gave fans something to chew on during Stranger Things’ three-year break. For The Official Gilded Age Podcast, HBO tapped Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone and Bowery Boys co-host Tom Meyers to dig into the history behind the show.
“It’s less about kind of dollars and cents ROI and more about fanbase ROI, which serves the purpose of generating buzz and visibility,” Malnati says.
It seems to accomplish that elusive thing that brands are always trying, and often failing, to achieve: marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing. Netflix tried to generate fandom with Tudum, poaching entertainment journalists to produce interviews and other bonus content. It didn’t click, and the company fired much of Tudum’s staff in April. However, it does not appear that anyone from Netflix’s podcasting team was laid off.
According to Becky Rho, director of podcast production at HBO Max, part of why podcasting succeeds where other digital marketing content fails is that it doesn’t ask too much of fans. “There’s a benefit right to this being an audio medium. It’s more of a lean-back experience for the audience,” she says. “They can put it on their AirPods, put it on their speaker, and just listen while they’re doing other things.”
Spotify gets a new head of podcasting tech
Spotify has found a replacement for Michael Mignano, the Anchor co-founder who led the company’s podcast and talk tech stack for the past three years. Mignano announced his departure in May, and will leave at the end of the month. Talk R&D director Maya Prohovnik will take his spot, Bloomberg reported Monday.
Prohovnik, who was the VP of product at Anchor, came to Spotify with Mignano after the 2019 acquisition. Spotify declined to comment on the matter, but Mignano appeared to confirm Prohovnik’s appointment in a tweet Monday afternoon.
“Supreme confidence in @mayafish, arguably the best product leader I know,” he tweeted. “After working together for more than a decade, I’ve no doubt she’ll be taking the Talk audio team/strategy, @anchor, and @Spotify to new heights 🚀🚀🚀”
Prohovnik’s promotion is the latest move in Spotify’s executive reshuffle. Last month, Max Cutler, Bill Simmons, and Julie McNamara were all promoted in the wake of head of studios Courtney Holt’s departure. A replacement for head of Gimlet Lydia Polgreen has not yet been announced.
A look inside Bannon’s podcast empire
On Monday, The Atlantic published a fascinating look at far-right nationalist Steve Bannon’s podcast operation. He insists War Room is a TV show, not a podcast (okay!), despite the fact that he has one of the biggest political podcasts around. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that, according to a Brookings Institution study, his show had the most episodes pushing election disinformation of any popular political podcast.
The article also points to possible financial trouble with his business. Bannon claims it is a “cash machine,” and that he added a fourth hour to accommodate all his sponsors. But he appears to lack mainstream advertisers, relying instead on Mike Lindell’s MyPillow and Birch Gold Group, a precious metals IRA that touts endorsements from Ben Shapiro and Ron Paul. It also can’t help that Bannon’s election lies have gotten his show banned from YouTube and Spotify, the two biggest podcast platforms, according to a recent study from Cumulus. War Room is still allowed on Apple Podcasts, however, where it currently ranks at number 136.
That’s all for today! For Insiders, I will be back on Thursday with the goods from Spotify’s investor day.