Podcast companies want to increase diverse content—but say they need better ad budgets to do so

At Advertising Week New York, execs from companies like Hartbeat and Tenderfoot TV talked about the role advertisers can play in helping make the podcast industry more diverse.
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· 4 min read

Back in 2014, Serial helped make podcasting mainstream, but at the time, podcast listeners were still believed to be mostly white men. They’ve been growing more diverse in recent years—at least when it comes to race.

The industry wants advertisers to know it. This year’s IAB Podcast Upfront focused significantly on the diversity of hosts and audiences, and Advertising Week New York’s audio and podcast sessions did as well.

  • Thai Randolph, CEO of Kevin Hart’s media company Hartbeat, debuted a pod she’s hosting called Commerce in Color, interviewing guest Scott Mills, president and CEO of BET, live on stage for the first episode.
  • During a panel giving an overview of the podcast ecosystem moderated by Charlamagne Tha God, execs from iHeartMedia and Tenderfoot TV discussed the importance and nuances of advertisers’ spending budgets on diverse content.
  • Acast hosted a session called “Not All Impressions Sound Equal: Making Your Podcast Buy Inclusive and Impactful” about how marketers can help elevate diverse voices.

Alongside talk of diversity and authenticity came repeated mentions of brand safety. Podcast advertisers often have to give up more control than they’re used to, meaning networks must get ahead of any perceived risks.

Representation behind the mic

Part of the push for more diversity in podcasting is about getting creators from different backgrounds behind the mic in the first place. Conal Byrne, CEO of the iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group, said that podcasting, like other mediums, has a problem with representation, but that there are efforts underway to “course-correct.”

On the audience side, Edison Research’s 2022 Infinite Dial digital audio and media report indicated that regular US podcast listeners are 53% men and 59% white, numbers that are lower compared to prior years.

And while about half of podcast hosts are white, 24% are Hispanic or Latino, and 14% are African American, skewing more diverse than the US population in general, according to a 2022 report conducted by Edison and podcast media company Sounds Profitable.

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Lizzie Widhelm, SVP of ad innovation and B2B marketing at SXM Media, told Marketing Brew her company is working on an internal project that sets creators from underrepresented backgrounds up with tools like production resources and brand deals for their podcasts.

“We started taking it on the road a month ago to meet with advertisers, and they are so excited about underwriting that effort,” Widhelm said. “At the same time, they’re like, ‘Is it brand safe? What are they going to talk about?’”

The brand safety question

Byrne also said that brand safety can have a tendency to come up in conjunction with conversations about networks with diverse audiences and hosts. Oftentimes, content that can be perceived as uncomfortable to brands isn’t necessarily unsafe, Byrne explained.

During Acast’s panel, global head of ad innovation Elli Dimitroulakos said that brand-safety tech can be imperfect as well, because it “has been built by people with preconceived notions or biases.”

For instance, if a retailer wants to avoid all podcasts that mention the word “bomb,” they could be missing out on conversations about bomber jackets, Dimitroulakos said. Or “if I say ‘a bomb lipstick,’ I’m not talking about a weapon,” added Brooke DeVard Ozaydinli, host of the Naked Beauty podcast.

Potential solutions

Hartbeat’s Randolph told us that podcasters and brands can benefit from spending time understanding one another’s goals before agreeing to deals.

“Hopefully when you partner with someone, it’s because you have the same objectives,” she said.

Donald Albright, president and co-founder of Tenderfoot TV, said advertisers should be willing to put up the money to truly support the creators they ultimately decide to partner with.

“Black content is what creates the culture, all culture, so invest in that,” he said. “Put the money in it, and also pay a premium on it. Don’t just pay the normal rate, pay extra, because you’re reaching a very targeted market that’s going to set the trends. That should be more valuable.”

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