Inside the Podcast Boom: It’s Just Getting Started

Upoma Dutta, Media & Entertainment Editor

Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) talks with Jen Sargent (MBA ’05) about what’s fueling the exponential growth of the podcast industry.

Over the last few years, podcasting has gone mainstream: 32% of Americans over the age of 12 listen to podcasts monthly, up from 17% in 2015, according to the latest report from market-research firm Edison. Last week, RCs found out how podcasts became a hotbed for mattress advertising in 2015. It turns out that it’s not just the Caspers of the world who are lured by podcasts’ growing reach: marketers from a wide range of industries are expected to spend around $700 million in podcast advertising this year, more than six times what they spent in 2015, per the latest PwC report.

“Serious market adoption of podcasts began in 2013, when Apple started pre-installing the Podcasts app on iOS devices,” explains Jen Sargent (MBA ’05), Chief Operating Officer at Wondery. “A year later, the podcast industry found its first breakout hit in the form of Serial, an hour-long weekly podcast that quickly turned into a global listening phenomenon.”

Serial, which was adapted into an HBO docu-series earlier this year, averaged around 1.5 million listeners per episode during its 2014 run, validating the latent consumer demand for high-quality, serialized storytelling in audio format. Wondery ( launched in 2016 to explore the opportunity in immersive, serialized podcasts. It is now the world’s largest independent podcast publisher, churning out mega-hits as diverse as Dirty John, a true-crime podcast, and Business Wars, a podcast exploring business rivalries (including the evergreen Netflix vs. Blockbuster saga).

“We are always on the lookout for captivating, character-driven storylines that will work well in a podcast format,” notes Sargent. “We rely heavily on our creative talent to source ideas for original shows, but we also sometimes lean into co-productions. For instance, we co-produced Dirty John with the L.A. Times and The Shrink Next Door with Bloomberg, as there was an opportunity to combine our storytelling flair with our partners’ newsroom capabilities to explore stories that we could not have accessed on our own.”

With growing production budgets and top-tier talent, podcasts remain poised to grab share of users’ time from other entertainment options, such as videos. “The beauty of podcasting is that you can experience it while doing something else, like exercising, commuting, or cooking. This makes more hours of a day available for consumption of podcasts, relative to videos.”

Television networks, as well as streaming services, are also increasingly interested to adapt hit podcast shows into TV series. Last year, Wondery’s Dirty John was adapted into a limited series for Bravo, while Gimlet Media’s Homecoming debuted as an Amazon original series starring Julia Roberts.

“Like books, podcasts provide an avenue for TV shows to source intellectual properties that already have an established fan following. Working with intellectual properties that have already become successful in the podcast world considerably reduces risks for new TV shows,” says Sargent.

On the other hand, networks and streaming services are also increasingly partnering with podcast publishers like Wondery to create companion podcasts for their hit shows and satiate fans’ demand for more behind-the-scenes content. For instance, Wondery has teamed up with the Bachelor team to produce the show’s first companion podcast, Bachelor Happy Hour. Even The Office finally got its own companion podcast—Office Ladies, produced by Stitcher’s podcast network Earwolf—in September, more than six years after the TV show concluded.

“A sizable segment of Americans do not listen to podcasts regularly or have never tried out podcasts due to the barrier of adopting a new technological format,” notes Sargent. “Making companion podcasts for popular TV shows allows us to get fans excited about trying out a new medium and then convert them into regular podcast listeners.”

However, contrary to popular belief, podcast adoption is not limited to younger demographics. “While early podcast adopters mostly comprised young, tech-savvy users, podcast usage is growing fast in the 55-and-older age group, as radio show hosts are moving their audience from radio to podcast,” notes Sargent.

“The rise of smart speakers could further expand the overall pie of podcast listeners by making it easier to discover and consume podcasts through quick and easy voice commands.”

Music streaming platforms, such as Spotify and Pandora, are also leaning heavily into podcasting to grow their subscriber base. For example, Spotify has acquired three podcast companies this year, including Gimlet Media, to bring exclusive podcast shows to its platform. In its quarterly earnings call last week, the company also noted that podcast hours streamed grew by roughly 40% quarter-over-quarter, helping it to convert more and more free users into paid subscribers. 

Yet despite the recent momentum, Sargent believes that the podcast industry has only scratched the surface of its huge potential.

“International markets remain largely untapped. A range of possible genres of content also remain unexplored. Both areas present huge opportunity.

“Moreover, as most podcasts are ad-supported, I’m excited to see if subscription models can co-exist with advertising in this industry, as getting consumers to pay for premium podcast content can pave the way for more high-quality, investigative journalism.”

Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) came to HBS after spending roughly four years in the media and entertainment industry in New York, where she helped two media companies (HBO and Disney) transition into the streaming era and build on new strategic growth opportunities. Originally from Bangladesh, she also worked for the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) early in her career to promote financial inclusion and financial sector stability in South Asia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from The Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.