WME: As Podcasting Mega Deals Flourish, Agents Discuss Shifting Landscape & Opportunities For Talent

'Dark History' host Bailey Sarian Personal Courtesy

The podcasting business used to be considered the Wild West of the entertainment industry but as mega deals such as Joe Rogan’s $100M deal with Spotify and Amazon’s $300M acquisition of Wondery show, it’s quickly maturing.

WME represents the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Ronan Farrow and new stars such as Bailey Sarian in this space, and three of its podcast agents — Travis Dunlap, Marissa Hurwitz and Chelsea Kreps — are overseeing the talent agency’s drive into audio.

In a wide-ranging interview, the trio discuss the current state of the podcasting business, the growing appetite for exclusivity, increasing opportunities and new buyers moving into the market, consolidation, the potential for scripted stories and A-list talent entering the space.

Last week, sex and relationship podcast Call Her Daddy, a show repped by UTA, became the latest audio series to sign an exclusive deal with Spotify for around $60M. It comes as CAA is also shopping a multi-million dollar deal for Smartless, a series hosted by Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes.

(L-R): Marissa Hurwitz, Travis Dunlap, Chelsea Kreps WME

WME is talking to its swathe of clients, which also include Pod Save America producer Crooked Media, Missing Richard Simmons producer Dan Taberski and Rob Lowe, who hosts the Literally! With Rob Lowe show, on a case by case basis about exclusive agreements.

Kreps says that it’s currently a sellers’ market. “You see that with the Joe Rogans and Dax Shepards of the world and I think we’re only going to see more of that. A lot of traditional A-list talent that we work with here are seeing this is a great opportunity to incubate IP and working with one of these premium distribution places makes most sense for them to get involved with their business. It’s only going to continue to grow,” she adds.

“Spotify making a big push in gaining more traction in the podcast space has been incredibly beneficial to creators,” adds Hurwitz.

Dunlap highlights the fact that while podcasting has seen boom times, its 2021 projected revenues of $1B pale in comparison to the close to $10B radio market. “There’s still a pretty wide gap to fill and that’s why we’re seeing so many companies and talent taking the opportunity because it continues to grow,” he says.

The trio all started their careers at the agency and are based in the company’s digital division, which in addition to repping podcasters, also looks after YouTube talent and influencers. They are also becoming an important outlet for traditional talent that the agency represents, many of whom are keen to expand into the medium, moves fueled further by the pandemic.

For instance, client Eva Longoria, star of Desperate Housewives, who is growing her producing business UnbeliEVAble Entertainment, which makes shows such as HBO Max’s The Gordita Chronicles and ABC’s Grand Hotel, recently signed a deal with iHeartMedia to produce a slate of podcasts. Longoria will produce unscripted and scripted shows and is hosting her own show. “We felt when we spoke with her it was a real priority to build this Latin force and iHeart was the company at the moment that was really breaking into that and wanting to help amplify Latinx voices because it’s underrepresented at this time,” says Kreps.

Similarly, David Goyer, who has been involved with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, is making audio series Batman Unburied as part of a deal between Spotify, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. “It was an incredible confluence of factors all at one time and we’re excited for him to use a prolific piece of IP and be able to reinvent it in a new way,” says Hurwitz.

On the other end of the scale, the trio are working with newer talent and have had four number one launches in the last few weeks: true crime series Dark History from YouTuber Bailey Sarian, advice show We Can Do Hard Things from author Glennon Doyle, talk show Distractible from Twitch star Markiplier and narrative crime series Piketon Massacre (below) from KT Studios.

Hurwitz says, “There are sometimes fewer rules in the podcast space and one of the most interesting things is there’s a little bit of a democratization of who can build an audience in podcasting. We work with a lot of talent who are endemic podcasters who the majority of them have full time jobs and the podcast is a secondary business that they’ve built and have become celebrities in their own right based on the audience they’ve accumulated. Then we also get to work with our traditional talent who want to do something new and different in audio, where there’s a lot of experimentation happening.”

Dealmaking in podcasting is also evolving and the early Wild West days are seemingly coming to an end as buyers, sellers and agents become more experienced.

Dunlap points to a very diverse buyer landscape; obviously you have the big platforms like Spotify, Amazon Music and its separate sibling Audible as well as the big distributors like iHeart, SiriusXM-owned Stitcher and Audacy. He says, “You have to be mindful of the type of project, whether it’s a heavy lift [production wise], so if you take it out with a production company attached some of the distributors are ultimately going to say we would have done this if we could have produced it ourselves. It’s something that we’re constantly talking about and shifting.”

Hurwitz says the unpredictable nature of podcasting is one of the things that excites her. “Being challenged in what we do is the situation in which we thrive and it doesn’t allow us to become complacent. Every deal has a different set of terms around it, each situation is unique and that’s been incredibly fun, to work through this ecosystem and develop what the precedent is and develop what these deals look like, to protect and get the best deals for our clients and push the boundaries of what can be done in dealmaking in the audio space, which makes it a really exciting time to be part of podcasting,” she adds.

The landscape is shifting with the likes of Apple, which has traditionally been just a broad conduit for all shows, moving into originals with the likes of The Line from Alex Gibney and a Siegfried and Roy show from Steven Leckart. These, however, both come out of Apple TV+ and it’s not clear whether the tech company will be open to pitches outside of this division.

Apple also just launched its own premium subscription service – albeit a couple of weeks later than initially planned. Dunlap says, “Immediately, we started seeing amendments to deals as to whether our clients’ shows will be included in these subscriptions and how do they participate in any additional revenue that comes from that new line of distribution. That points to the fact that the advertising-only business model is shifting more in this hybrid version of premium or subscription for certain types of content. Hopefully it allows for more flexibility with the types of shows that can be made and the budget levels.”

Whether the future of podcasting is largely ad-supported or subscription-based is one of the hot topics in the industry. Dunlap believes that hybrid models will also be key.

IP rights are another important debate and keeping hold of rights to allow for film and TV adaptations, merchandising and touring is one of the main drivers bringing in top tier talent to the medium.

“The type of podcast that performs best in the podcast ecosystem is an always on format not unlike Joe Rogan or Bailey Sarian. But the type of show that typically performs best as a source of IP is a more limited narrative non-fiction format like Serial that is inherently more expensive to produce but much harder to earn your costs back,” Dunlap says. “That’s why IP has become such an important aspect on the limited run side because that’s where it can be extended and generate a lot more revenue if it is successful.”

Marketing is key to this to bring in new listeners, something that the likes of Wondery and QCode have done well, by dropping trailers into many of its other feeds of its new shows. Scripted podcasts are still very nascent and arguably there hasn’t been a breakout hit similar to Serial, but the trio are confident that there will be. “We’re seeing positive signs of growth and as people become more familiar and attuned to audio as a form of entertainment and as creators of audio continue to build on their experience, I think we’ll see a renaissance for scripted audio. But it will inherently be a more limited market than the more common unscripted, chat, weekly formats,” says Dunlap.

Hurwitz highlights Dick Wolf’s audio business, which launched with Hunted (above), a U.S. Marshals drama starring Parker Posey. “The notion that massive traditional players in these other areas can end up with really lucrative audio business is really exciting for all of us and there are a lot of incredible clients that we represent that want to be involved in the podcast space,” she says.

Going forward, the trio point to the importance of combining video and audio for a Gen Z generation that grew up with YouTube stars, how radio plays a part in podcasting and further consolidation. “I don’t think we’ve seen the end of that. This is a business that works well with scale. That scale is going to be really important for major players to go after,” says Dunlap.

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