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SiriusXM’s Adam Sachs on why your favorite comedy podcasts are now on the radio

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It’s only Tuesday, and it’s already been a packed week for podcast news. Shortly before hitting publish on this issue of Hot Pod, I got the news that just about every late-night talk show host in America is teaming up with Spotify to launch a limited podcast series about the Hollywood strike. The five hosts: Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver, have all had their shows on pause since May due to the Writers Guild strike. Strike Force Five will launch on Spotify and other platforms on August 30th, and the plan is for the limited series to run for at least 12 episodes. 

Notably, the proceeds from the show will go to the late-night series’ staffers, many of whom have been unemployed for a few months now. As is now usual with Spotify, Strike Force Five won’t be an exclusive podcast — it’ll be available on other podcast players. So will a new Spotify Original with Trevor Noah, which is due to be released later this year. The show will be hosted on Spotify’s Megaphone, and Spotify will serve as exclusive sales partner. 

The exclusive isn’t dead, though: on Monday, Wondery announced a deal with Dr. Seuss Enterprises to launch a slate of original podcasts featuring IP from the iconic children’s book author. The first podcast, The Cat in the Hat Cast, will launch exclusively on Wondery Plus and Wondery Plus Kids on the Apple Podcasts app. Exclusivity is usually bad for podcasts — but parents also tend to be willing to pay for a premium membership in order to access ad-free programming for their children. 

The announcement of Strike Force Five is unusually good timing, given the Q&A I’m featuring in today’s Hot Pod. Read on for my chat with a longtime leader in the comedy podcast space.

SiriusXM’s Adam Sachs on podcasts as a mode of distribution

Last week at Podcast Movement, I caught up with Adam Sachs — the senior vice president of entertainment, comedy, and podcasts programming at SiriusXM. Sachs served as the president of Team Coco up until March of this year, when the satellite radio giant cut 475 jobs as part of a restructuring.

SiriusXM, which acquired Team Coco in May 2022, now wants to streamline all of its audio programming across entertainment and talk — regardless of distribution method. That means podcasts airing on SiriusXM’s satellite radio channels. Team Coco already has its own 24/7 SiriusXM channel, which it launched last November. I spoke to Sachs about what radio can offer podcast creators, including former late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What’s your perspective on taking over the entertainment, comedy, and programming division at SiriusXM? What are your thoughts about the direction of the programming for the rest of the year?

So I came over from Team Coco when we were acquired in May of last year. So it’s almost been a year and a half. For the first 10 months or so, it was very much “let’s keep Team Coco separate and let them operate in their own isolated bubble,” which I think made a lot of sense. SiriusXM was smart to not say, “Let’s integrate everybody immediately.” I think they wanted to maintain some continuity. And also not to have people run out the door after the acquisition — and it was successful in that sense. 

And then in March of this year, so like six months ago, my role did change. The company went through a full reorganization, really. People from the Team Coco team went and joined the video team at SiriusXM, or our people joined their legal team. It made sense at that point. We had gotten enough time to familiarize ourselves with the organization and the different departments and different personalities and the way the functions work internally. 

Since I took over this role in March, there was definitely a learning curve. The role includes podcast programming, which includes Stitcher, Earwolf, 99% Invisible, all those brands — as well as Team Coco. For that stuff, the learning curve was short. Obviously, a lot of those businesses are close to Team Coco. But also, previously, I was the CEO of Midroll Media, which we sold to E.W. Scripps, and Midroll Media ultimately became a part of Stitcher. 

So, in a lot of ways, when I took this job, it was like reuniting with that past — it was very circular. It involved reuniting with a lot of my old colleagues and a lot of the talent I used to work with. I’m on a panel tomorrow morning [at Podcast Movement] with June Diane Raphael of How Did This Get Made. And it’s like, I worked at the show 10 years ago when it was a part of Earwolf. It’s much bigger than it was when I was running it. But it’s familiar and easy to wrap my head around. 

Radio is another component to the job. And that’s where the learning curve was — it’s really a business model I didn’t know. I got a little bit of an introduction because about six months after the acquisition, we launched Team Coco Radio. So that’s Conan O’Brien’s channel. That was my first introduction to how starting a channel works, how the monetization works, how the costs are allocated, and what some of the roles are like behind a radio channel. I have a really good, pretty senior team that has helped educate me on the radio side of the business. 

Can we talk about that transition a little more? We’re seeing kind of the reverse of what happened when public radio started embracing podcasts. What’s the dynamic like now, and what do you envision moving forward? 

That’s a big part of my mandate, actually, and that’s why SiriusXM is putting podcasts and talk radio on demand — it’s because there’s a big opportunity to reach a whole new audience. First of all, it’s a pretty disparate audience. There’s not a ton of overlap between the [general US] podcast audience and the SiriusXM radio audience today. It’s a real opportunity to reach incremental audiences if you can find the right content.

“SiriusXM is like a bunch of little channels that have brands.”

SiriusXM is like a bunch of little channels that have brands. And so, for us, we’re looking at this on a case-by-case basis at this point. We launched Kelly Ripa’s podcast, Let’s Talk Off Camera. And so that’s a really good fit — the sensibility fit for radio and Andy Cohen’s radio channel. And so, for us, we thought, let’s take advantage of that. Of course, we had to make sure Andy Cohen agrees since he oversees [Radio Andy]. 

Team Coco is a good case study because we’ve been taking the existing podcasts and putting it on the radio the day that the podcast goes live. So it was like serving two different audiences at the same time with essentially the same content. 

I think an important thing we’re figuring out when we do a new deal with talent is ”what does a holistic partnership look like?” It’s not gonna look like just signing you to a podcast or signing you to a [radio program]. It might be more like, here’s the podcast component of the partnership, here’s the radio component. Maybe it’s just that we’re rebroadcasting podcasts to radio, but more likely, we’ll figure out something exclusive. Like a bonus episode, or something live, that really lends itself to radio — that we can add to the deal in the package. 

For creators, what can adding a radio component to their podcast achieve? 

Incremental audience. More direct interaction with fans because the podcast is not live, kind of by definition, right? So the opportunity to do something live and talk to your fans and community directly is something that appeals to a lot of creators — and has the potential for more revenue. 

I’ve noticed many comedians embracing podcasts since the pandemic — and especially during the Hollywood strike — either as guests or doing their own show. For someone like Conan O’Brien, who’s already a big name and very, very proficient with interviewing guests, what’s the appeal of a podcast? What does a podcast offer someone like him versus an emerging star? 

So, with Conan, and I can speak for him because I’ve heard him say it so many times. I mean, he did spend 20 years perfecting his skills as an interviewer. But one of his big frustrations with [the late-night show] is that he would have someone on that he loves, and he would get like six minutes, and it would get interrupted by a band. The interview would be very superficial and usually be driven by someone coming on to promote something. And he had to fill two or three slots every night. So he wasn’t always getting the number one guests he wanted to get. The podcast allows him to be very choosy about who he talks to and to talk to people in a longform way, which allows him to get deeper with people and not feel rushed to get right to the point. He can flex that interview muscle he’s been building over so many years. 

“The direct connection that listeners get to podcast hosts is very powerful.”

And it’s almost a cliché at this point — but the direct relationship between podcasters and listeners is really strong and really deep. He walks down the street now, and I’ve been there with him, and people will call out catchphrases from the podcast. The TV show was important to people, too — I’m not saying that it wasn’t. But the direct connection that listeners get to podcast hosts is very powerful. During the pandemic, we got so many messages from people saying that Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend was a respite during the dark times. I don’t think that’s unique to that show. How many times have podcasts provided an escape for people when they were stuck at home or feeling dark? I think that pretty much applies across the board. 

You can catch the remainder of my interview with Sachs in Thursday’s Insider edition of Hot Pod

What’s a “heavy” user in the podcast world?

Sure, a “heavy podhead” sounds like something that should star in its own horror movie. But chances are, you probably are one. Roughly a quarter (or 22 percent) of podcast listeners tune in for more than five hours a week, placing them in the “heavy podhead” category, according to a YouGov study released this week on podcast consumption. While five hours of podcasts per week may sound like a lot to newbies, it’s less shocking when you keep in mind that many listen to podcasts while doing something else — whether that be commuting, doing chores, or exercising. If someone’s daily commute is roughly 30 minutes each way, they can easily fit into the “heavy podhead” classification. 

Still, YouGov’s results aren’t too shocking: an Edison Research study from 2016 actually found an even greater chunk (29 percent) of weekly podcast listeners tune in to five or more hours. While the numbers may fluctuate from year to year, the findings are consistent. Basically, we know there’s a fraction of podcast listeners with lifestyles that allow them to tune in very frequently. But there’s no sign (at least in the data) that “heavy” podcast listening is becoming more widespread every year. 

Interesting enough, a “heavy podhead” doesn’t even need to consume that many individual shows — being a regular listener of two or three weekly podcasts may be enough.  While the length of an average podcast episode is roughly 41 minutes (according to a 2019 analysis by Dan Misener), episodes of many chart-topping podcasts run for much longer. The latest episode of The Joe Rogan Experience was two hours and 22 minutes (which is on the light side for that show). YouTube podcasts can easily run over an hour. This American Life normally puts out hour-long episodes, though many are a little longer. While The Vergecast has done shorter episodes, many run well over 75 minutes (a June episode that ran for an hour and 38 minutes included a discussion of our Google Pixel Fold review and Microsoft’s legal battle with the FTC). 

For some people, five hours is nothing. A writer for The Cut estimated she listened to 35 hours of podcasts per week, and this was back in 2017. And then there are nonstop podcast listeners, which The Washington Post profiled this week. Playing podcasts or another type of “background media,” such as Netflix, YouTube videos, or a stream on Twitch, can help with focus and concentration, some listeners find. Many also rely on podcasts as a substitute for daily social chatter with friends and co-workers. So, some listeners will start listening to podcasts upon waking up — and then just keep playing episodes throughout the day. While it’s unclear how much attention these listeners are paying to the podcasts — they’re likely some of the most loyal fans.

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