The podcasting business is expected to hit $1B in revenues this year – a huge leap from the audio medium’s indie roots and self-produced successes.
Last year, during the height of the Covid pandemic, the medium exploded with a raft of A-list talent moving in, hosting and exec producing their own shows, from the comfort of their own homes (and often their bedroom closets).
ICM was responsible for high-profile series such as John Stamos’ The Grand Scheme: Snatching Sinatra for Wondery and Alan Cummings’ Hot White Heist for Audible.
The agency, through its Director of Podcast Initiatives Caroline Edwards, will continue to put together and sell projects from its stable of A-list talent, but Edwards and her team are also doubling down on growing trends in the business towards diverse voices and new areas such as children’s content.
“A lot of celebrities jumped into the space in 2020 and now things are shaking out in terms of what’s working and what’s not. What I love about audio is that it doesn’t necessarily work if you’re just a celebrity, it has to be genuine, it’s an intimate medium, you can’t fake anything when it comes to podcasts. Some of the biggest players in the space are straight-up audio people,” Edwards tells Deadline.
“This year has been very interesting. 2020 was go, go go, buy buy buy, we’re the only people who can still be working right now, everyone’s available, everyone’s a podcaster, there’s a huge influx of cash. I was very busy closing a ton of deals. This year, people are much more calculated, much more intentional and taking all the data they’ve learned because we’re such a baby industry. We’re figuring out things in real time,” she adds.
Edwards has signed a slew of new voices this year including Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., the creative mind behind Resistance on Spotify. The series, which is produced by Gimlet Media, is “about refusing to accept things as they are” and features stories from the front lines of the movement for Black lives, told by the generation fighting for change.
She is also working with Ben O’Keefe, a social change activist and political commentator, as well as the likes of Pansuit Politics, which is hosted by liberal Sarah Stewart Holland and conservative Beth Silvers.
“I’m really excited about bringing up, cultivating and supporting this next generation of people talking about what’s going on in our world and what we can do about it. They’re not the easiest sales but 2020 was all about the celebrity show and the fallout from that is not all of them are hits so we need to focus on people who are native to this medium. People are now looking at people who are just genuinely good [at podcasting],” says Edwards.
Politics, especially going in to an election year in 2022, activism and advocacy are core tenets of ICM’s podcasting growth, but Edwards is also seeing a boom in children’s content. She works with the likes of ABF Creative, the company run by former NPR producer Anthony Frasier, which produces African Folktales, a collection of traditional bedtime stories originating in Africa for the modern kid and Morgen Givens, who hosts fiction anthology series Flyest Fables, which follows Antoine, a young boy bullied in school, who finds a magical book that transports him into the world of Princess Keisha.
“When you look at trends, kids is growing more and more. A lot of the bigger players like iHeart, Wondery and QCode jumping in, so investing in kids content is going to continue to be a smart investment,” she adds.
Podcasts remain a major source of IP development with hundreds of shows in various stages of production for TV and film.
Some of Edwards’ big series including Stamos’ The Grand Scheme: Snatching Sinatra, Alan Cummings’ Hot White Heist for Audible and Ariel Ramchandani’s No Place Like Home are all candidates for series adaptations and Edwards says that there are conversations taking place for all of these projects.
Snatching Sinatra is the wild tale of the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr., told through the perspective of kidnapper Barry Keenan. Hot White Heist is a sperm bank heist series starring the likes of Bowen Yang, Cynthia Nixon, Abbi Jacobson, Jane Lynch, Bianca Del Rio, and MJ Rodriguez, while Ariel Ramchandani’s No Place Like Home is the true crime story behind the heist of Dorothy’s iconic ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz from Audacy’s C13Originals.
“Obviously there’s a lot of heat for film and TV adaptations,” says Edwards. “In terms of people being interested in podcasts for development, I get endless calls from development execs and people asking what I’m pitching and what’s available. It’s still very hot in terms of development IP, bigger than books.”
There are additional opportunities as well. Touring, for instance, was starting to take off in a major way before the pandemic and there are many other ancillary revenue opportunities. “It’s so cool to be able to work on something that serves as this weird nucleus that then turns into speaking events, books, TV, and plays,” she adds.
The number of buyers is also rising; the likes of Spotify, Audible, Amazon Music, Wondery, iHeart, as well as Apple, which has started moving into originals, are all competing for shows. But there are two distinct buckets in the podcast space that are very different from each other.
There is the deep dive investigative series, often in the true crime or related space, and then there is the weekly talkshow, such as The Joe Rogan Podcast. The former are generally perfect for adaptations, but the latter is where the money is. “If you want to do a really thoughtful, beautiful investigative deep dive 12 episodes, you will not make any money on it in podcasting but it’s all about the derivatives. No one gets rich off 12 episodes. If you want to get rich in podcasting, you have to do a weekly, 52 weeks a year chat show,” says Edwards.
Edwards started her career at ICM, initially working for TV Literary Partner Chris von Goetz, before serving as a Creative Executive for client Byron Balasco. She joined the Hillary Clinton campaign in the Field department before rejoining ICM Partners as Creative Director for ICM Politics in July 2017.
ICM itself is in the middle of its merger with CAA, another growing player in the podcasting world, and Edwards will likely work closely with Josh Lindgren, who is the latter’s first official podcast boss, when the deal closes.
Expect podcasting to become an increasingly important part of the combined business. “Part of what I love about the podcast space is that all of these deals are so different and creative and so custom depends on what your clients needs. There is no standard, it’s still the wild west and we take it as it comes,” adds Edwards.
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