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ESPN’s Three-Pronged Podcast Bucket List

| August 29, 2018

By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor


LOS ANGELES — Relatively speaking, it wasn’t all that long ago when seemingly every on-air talent simply had to have his or her own personal website.

Nowadays, proliferation of the podcast appears to be riding a substantial wave of popularity, although the fairly elementary form of communication has actually been with us for well over a decade.

As is the case with a business or private website, a podcast’s practicality will ultimately rest upon its ability to generate revenue – or at the very minimum – underscore one’s brand.

Heightened sales commitment

Hardly a rookie in the arena, ESPN has been in the podcast industry for more than a dozen years, but vice president of digital audio and radio marketing Tom Ricks admits the company noticeably stepped up its game approximately three years ago. “That’s when we really began getting organized, putting a strategy in-place to make decisions about the content that we produce,” he acknowledges. “We were one of the first ones in – but certainly not the first one. NPR, for example, has been in the space for as long as we have and various smaller publishers have been [podcasting] as long as ESPN – if not longer.”

Most of the only handful of podcasts ESPN originally published were actually at the behest of its talent, and Ricks details that podcasting’s recent progression is owing to resources that have been instituted. “Our sales team is aligned with our podcast business,” he states. “We are in the marketplace, trying to monetize inventory within the podcasts. In the last few years, we have become more focused on representing podcasts as another [medium] in the broad array of media types that ESPN takes to market in sales.”

At the present time, the self-dubbed “worldwide leader” is publishing in the neighborhood of 60 podcasts, including all those under its network umbrella. “We publish many original podcasts and we have repurposed radio and television shows,” Ricks reveals. “In addition, we own radio stations in New York [sports talk WEPN ‘ESPN New York 98.7’]; Los Angeles [sports talk KSPN ‘ESPN LA 710’]; and Chicago [sports talk WMVP ‘ESPN Chicago 1000 AM’]. Those stations publish podcasts on the local level, as well. Probably the biggest challenges have been keeping up with the monetization of the content; having systems that are able to correctly forecast inventory; and deliver what an advertiser bought. Those are the pieces that have developed over the last few years, as we try to figure out which resources are needed to facilitate an efficient work process.”

Sports is naturally the focal point of ESPN podcasts. “We have broken our content into three ‘buckets’ for the podcast space,” Ricks points out. “We look at how to produce content in and around Major League Baseball, the NFL, and NBA [as well as some] niche sports [such as a recently-introduced Mixed Martial Arts-geared podcast]. Another ‘bucket’ approach is how we leverage the personalities we have and build podcast content around them. We’ve done that with several [on-air talents], including a newcomer to ESPN, Katie Nolan [who formerly hosted ‘Garbage Time with Katie Nolan’ on FOX Sports]. The third ‘bucket’ of our content strategy is focused on storytelling. Early last year, we launched a podcast [pertaining to] the revered ‘30 For 30’ brand. We take what’s best about ‘30 For 30’ and find stories in the marketplace that fit the podcast space and produce ‘storytelling’-type podcasts in and around [that particular brand].”

One of ESPN’s most-tenured efforts targets fantasy football partisans and, as one would imagine, it does extremely well seasonally. “That podcast had its 10th birthday last year and it is one of the first ones we started to publish when fantasy football started to take off across the country,” explains Ricks, who previously was vice president of business development for ESPN’s network of local websites in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Boston. “[ESPN senior fantasy sports analyst/ columnist] Matthew Berry had the idea to do a podcast so he could speak to his fans in a more personal and intimate way. [In addition], the NBA is very hot across-the-board for everyone and [the Zach Lowe-hosted] ‘Lowe Post’ is one of our most popular podcasts.”

Meaningful mantras of flexibility and listener control

It is not overdramatic or hyperbolic to assess that podcasts have exploded across the board in numerous genres the past three years or so, with several things accelerating that condition. “In 2015, Apple made a podcast app native to their phones,” Ricks notes. “Everyone who bought that phone starting that year were able to find content which helped to propel the medium forward. The [2015 Peabody award-winning, Sarah Koenig-hosted] podcast ‘Serial,’ [developed by This American Life], took off and had tremendous success. It really put a mark on the map [indicating that] podcasting is a different way to consume content. It helped raise awareness so people could find that app on their Apple phone.”

Among podcasting’s basic benefits is placing more control directly to the listener so they can seek out the content they want, as well as have the ability to listen anytime and anywhere. “That has been ESPN’s mantra for a long time,” Ricks remarks. “In many cases, we use technology to help us make our content available in whatever way a person wants [to access it] at their convenience. We know that sports fans are consuming on-demand content in both the video and audio worlds. We want our on-demand content to be in all the different places where sports fans are consuming content.”

Another strong podcasting selling point is flexibility regarding length and Ricks emphasizes, “We don’t have radio clocks and we don’t have ‘hard outs.’  I simply tell our producers to keep things tight and clean. It isn’t an issue if a podcast is 42 minutes one day, and 63 minutes the next day, as long as there is good content in eachone of those minutes. The content we are talking about and the story itself dictate the length. Some of our podcasts are 20 minutes long and others are 90 minutes. Elsewhere in the industry, there are 10-minute podcasts and some that last for three hours.”

From data Ricks has gleaned by way of publisher-specific Apple Product Analytics, however, when podcasts get particularly protracted, fatigue sets in and listeners are more likely to pull the plug. “It might be that it doesn’t align with their commute, so we generally try to keep podcasts under one hour; however, we don’t put any guidelines to producers about length,” he stresses. “The beauty is that after you record the file, you can go back and edit it. You can always insert something important and produce it in any way that you like. We know more than 85% of those downloading a podcast will listen to it. [Furthermore], the lion-share of those downloading a podcast will listen to at least 90% of the entire file. We can look at listening curves for specific episodes of each podcast title we have. We can see when people are dropping out and if they are skipping ads. We can’t see that on an individual basis [though] – it is on an aggregated basis.”

Notwithstanding the above-referenced Apple Product Analytics research, podcast measurement, for the most part, is dramatically behind what is found in most other media types. “The way we go to market and sell is based on the average number of downloads-per-episode,” Ricks confirms. “If we have a podcast that publishes weekly/50 weeks a year, we look at the average number of downloads a podcast gets each time it is published. We do not have access to a lot of demographic information through Nielsen or other places. We do some research on our own to get a better understanding of our demos so we have a story to tell advertisers. As the podcast industry has continued to evolve, and measurement of the space has gotten better, we are starting to see some companies come to the market, striking partnerships with [companies such as] Nielsen. They are using a Nielsen database to extrapolate demographics across some of the audiences they’ve built around the podcast space.”

Stats from Edison Research’s 2018 “Podcast Consumer” piece suggest that general podcast consumers are nearly equally split along gender lines: 52% male/48% female. By contrast, 79% of ESPN podcast listeners are male/21% female. Meanwhile, 84% of those sampling ESPN podcasts are in the 18-49 demo; 61% are college-educated; and 75% have an annual household income in excess of $75,000.

Energized by added competition

Corporate restrictions prohibit Ricks from sharing specific revenue figures generated via podcasts, although he is able to boast that, with 36 million downloads, May 2018 was ESPN’s “best month ever” and that January 2018 through July 2018 consumption was “up 65%,” versus the same period last year. “We expect to set record after record rolling into the fall,” he predicts, “when there’s a convergence of Major League Baseball’s post-season, as well as the start of the NFL, college football, and NBA seasons. That mirrors ESPN television: The fourth quarter is the most-watched, with October having the biggest reach of any other month.”

Incentives such as doing podcasts are frequently built into ESPN talent contracts. As noted earlier, however, it is not at all unusual for personalities at the sports network entity to volunteer to do such elements. “They have an idea and usually don’t even ask for extra compensation,” Ricks maintains. “They see that doing a podcast gives them more of an opportunity to be themselves and do something the way they want to. It is the job of [ESPN ‘SportsCenter’ anchors] to deliver sports news and highlights to the audience, but when they do an NBA podcast [for example], they don’t have a bunch of people guiding them down a path. They see it as a chance to broaden and extend their own personal brand into different types of media. [NFL analyst] Adam Schefter asked us to do a podcast that shows a different side of him. He does an interview podcast [ESPN Audio’s ‘Know Them From Adam’] that isn’t necessarily about sports, but about things that have happened in the lives of [people with a connection to football].”

Whether solicited or not, feedback is omnipresent via social media and Ricks comments that, by and large, reaction to ESPN podcasts has been very positive. “We would hear about it quickly if we published an audio file with a glitch in it,” he quips. “Some of our podcasts have interactive elements, in that, they have established voicemail lines to include [listener reaction] as content in the show. ‘Fantasy Focus Football’ produces a live Twitter show, while recording the podcast. We encourage our talent to pay attention to what listeners are saying and ask the hosts who are building an intimate relationship with the listener to address any feedback as part of their podcasts.”

Innovative distribution platforms continue to emerge, thus providing Ricks additional avenues on which to place ESPN podcast content. “I am as excited about it today as I was three years ago,” he enthuses. “There are new competitors coming into the space. From my perspective, it makes things more fun and exciting whenever there’s new competition. Getting all the infrastructure set up to support the business from an audience standpoint as well as from a revenue standpoint has been a challenge – but an exciting one because we ‘didn’t know what we didn’t know.’”

Forthcoming project sparks interest

Reluctant to ascribe the word “unbelievable” to summarize the growth that has been experienced in terms of monetizing podcasts, Ricks nonetheless assesses it has been “skyrocketing for everyone” in the industry. “Our revenue has doubled in each of the last two years,” he declares. “The biggest way to monetize podcasts today is with ‘host reads’ or ‘live reads’ as part of the content. It is almost as an endorsement, but in virtually all cases of advertising within our podcasts, we are not necessarily endorsing products. Most of the time, our hosts are reading copy that is [written] by the advertisers. Direct-response is the most popular ad type [although] we are seeing more brand awareness advertising. Financial services and direct-to-consumer retailers are the most popular advertisers in the space. At ESPN Audio, we have strong relationships with – among others – Delta Airlines, Geico Insurance, Seat Geek, and Zip Recruiter.”

Despite a bountiful array of podcasts which it already publishes, ESPN has several more on-tap in the fall. One that Ricks is especially animated about involves former ESPN Radio “Mike & Mike” co-host Mike Greenberg, whose “I’m Interested” endeavor will be introduced next Tuesday (9/4). “The premise is that he has selected high-profile guests to be interviewed at a place of their choosing,” Ricks discloses. “His ‘interest’ in the guest may – or may not – be tied to sports, but they have ‘interesting’ stories to tell.”

Hall of Fame sportscaster Bob Costas; MLB commissioner Rob Manfred; “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts; journalist Diane Sawyer; Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright; and mystery writer Harlan Coben are among those penciled onto Greenberg’s list. “We don’t know yet when they are going to publish,” Ricks concedes. “We are trying to get eight to ten of the interviews in the can before we actually launch the podcast.”

Before linking up with ESPN in 2007, Ricks was general manager for private equity-owned Pure Fishing and held various marketing and general management positions at Kimberly-Clark. “I came to ESPN as a general manager of a business of theirs [fishing organization BASS – Bass Anglers Sportsman Society – which ESPN purchased in 2001] and it was assigned to our radio business,” the University of Georgia alum recounts. “Part of my job was to look for opportunities to grow our broadcast radio business. While it is still one of the largest reach mediums, [terrestrial] radio as we know it isn’t growing – it is flat to declining. My job was to grow radio by creating new revenue streams. Podcasting was just beginning to take off and it is a way for content producers to create a more intimate connection with their listeners. If you win them over, they become a listener who will be there each time you publish a new piece of content.”

Mike Kinosian is managing editor at TALKERS magazine.  He can be emailed at:

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Category: Features