Why NPR Acquired Pocket Casts

Shifty Jelly, makers of Pocket Casts, today announced a ‘partnership’ with a consortium of public radio organizations including NPR, WNYC, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life. In a press release, NPR call it an outright ‘acquisition’:

Today, four of the top podcast producers – NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago, and This American Life – announced the acquisition of Pocket Casts, a leading podcast app. This unprecedented collaboration furthers public radio’s leading role as an innovator in audio discovery and distribution, while ensuring the continued support and growth of one of the most popular listening platforms on the market.

Why would a group of top tier pubic radio organizations want to buy a small podcast app? Let’s try and unpick this and figure out why this makes sense. Here is a grab bag of some theories I have:

First, we’ve seen a general move for companies in the podcast space to become ‘full stack’. That is, to expand to operate in each part of the value chain: creation, publishing, monetization and playback. Look at E.W. Scripps who own Midroll, Earwolf and Stitcher. Or Pandora who own Adswizz and Deezer. So keeping up with the competition to stay relevant seems wise. Also, they have seen print publishers squeezed by Google and Facebook because they didn’t own the means of distribution so this is a bet against that.

Second, being able to insert whatever data reporting they want into the player means they will have a much clearer picture of how ads are performing and can provide that data back to the larger advertisers who are more interested in brand awareness than direct response ads. NPR has an initiative called Remote Audio Data, which hasn’t had much written about it publicly and they’ve had trouble getting RAD adopted by any of the major podcast apps. It specifies how a player can send back notifications to the server when certain parts of an episode plays. This will surely be the first thing they implement in Pocket Casts.

Third, Android. Android is probably the biggest opportunity in podcasting right now. The audience is fragmented over many different apps and it has a huge install base. Along with Google not making really any moves to own podcasts on Android, this leaves the door open for someone to break out and have the ‘go to’ podcast app on Android. I’ve seen some stats that put Pocket Casts around 5-7% of Android listening and NPR One at 5%. So right off the bat they would have around 10-12% of Android listening combined.

Fourth, a nice complement to NPR One. I’ve seen some people questioning whether these two apps make sense together and whether Pocket Casts would become more like NPR One. My take is that they are different enough to exist together. NPR One is a focused, personalized experience for superfans of NPR. Pocket Casts is a general consumer app for everyone with the whole podcast catalogue available.

One thing that caught my eye from NPR press release is that the new CEO of Pocket Casts is from commercial, not public, radio:

Audio veteran Owen Grover will serve as CEO of Pocket Casts. Grover previously served as Executive Vice President and General Manager at iHeartRadio, and before that as Vice President of Programming and Marketing at Clear Channel Music & Radio

I expect that we’ll see a pretty aggressive expansion plans from Pocket Casts in future.