As NPR’s income from podcast advertising grows, the network aims to hold the ad spots to standards that are fairly similar to those governing its broadcast underwriting language, according to a sales executive.
Bryan Moffett, v.p. for digital strategy and sponsorship operations at National Public Media, briefed the NPR board’s Resource Development Committee about gains in podcasting revenue during an April 30 meeting. NPM is the national corporate underwriting arm of NPR and PBS.
According to Moffett, NPM underwriting sales in all categories are 27 percent ahead of budgeted revenue for the second quarter of this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. In the current quarter, NPM has reached 96 percent of budgeted revenue, he said. With strong gains, NPM has increased its forecast for the fiscal year.
Moffett didn’t share specific numbers, but a Pew Research Center State of the News Media study released last week reported that NPR’s revenue from podcast advertising had doubled from fiscal year 2013 to 2014. Downloads of NPR’s podcasts grew 40 percent over that time, according to the report.
And NPR’s podcast ad income from the first five months of this fiscal year has outstripped its take in all of fiscal year 2014.
Podcasting “has really given us a conversation to have with marketers,” Moffett said. “We’re doing everything we can to leverage that.”
Howard Wollner, a committee member who also chairs the NPR Foundation, asked about differences between over-the-air and podcast underwriting. Unlike broadcast announcements, the FCC does not regulate sponsorship messages on podcasts. “That’s a whole other market for us that won’t be interested in radio,” Wollner said.
NPM has been selling a lot of combined podcast and broadcast packages to underwriters, Moffett said. “You just speak to [advertisers] in a different way” to package the two, he said.
NPM guidelines impose some restrictions on podcast underwriting. For example, they prohibit host endorsements of products, even though NPM research found that listeners would not mind. “We won’t do that — it’s too far,” Moffett said. “It’s too commercial.”
But on its website, NPM does point out opportunities for advertisers not provided by over-the-air messages.
“Compared to broadcast, podcast sponsorship messages offer more flexibility in describing features in qualitative terms, for instance with product descriptions like ‘designed to be simple and easy to use,’” NPM’s site says.
NPR limits “pre-roll” messages, which appear at the beginning of podcasts, to no more than 15 seconds. Ads within the podcast can be 30 seconds long, and some can be read by show hosts.
On its site, NPM provides examples of mid-roll content that veer into native advertising. In one example, hosts of the How to Do Everything podcast weave a promotion for the Netflix series House of Cards into a discussion with a manufacturer of playing cards. In another, they joke about “getting paid entirely in pants” in a message about men’s clothing website Trunk Club.
NPM has gauged listener response to podcast underwriting in focus groups and commissioned Edison Research to examine the issue. According to Moffett, researchers found that podcast listeners are not concerned about hearing ad-like spots on podcasts. They’re also active public radio listeners and donate to stations, with some even giving to stations outside of their markets, he said.
Yet station leaders at the board meeting expressed concerns about allowing different standards for broadcast and podcast spots. Such messages could confuse listeners, said committee member Kerry Swanson, station manager at Northwest Public Radio in Pullman, Wash. “No one is going to understand, ‘Oh, that’s different because that’s radio and that’s a podcast,’” he said.
But committee member Chris Boskin, a public board member, said NPR was being “too sensitive” about the public’s ability to differentiate podcast ads from broadcast announcements.
“I think they’re much more sophisticated when it comes to podcasts and the Internet,” she said. “People are much more understanding and accepting. We think we’re sort of this island unto ourselves, and we can’t have advertising.”
Paul Maassen, g.m. of WWNO-FM in New Orleans and a candidate for the board, cautioned board members during public comment that NPR is on “a very, very slippery slope,” and that the board should keep tight reins on how podcast sponsorship is handled.
“It’s not because the audience doesn’t tolerate it; that’s not the point,” he said. “The point is — we’re now starting to devalue what happens on the radio side.” Allowing different standards for podcast messages could sway advertisers to focus more spending on the podcasts, he said. “It’s going to make it harder to sell radio, and it’s going to create two classes of advertising,” Maassen said.
Moffett said NPM continues to update its guidelines for podcast sponsorship messages, and that NPR aims to minimize differences between podcast and broadcast credits. Non-newsmagazines can include sponsor messages read by hosts, for example, but other announcers handle the job for newsmagazines.
“I’d say it’s a little further than what we can do in an FCC-appropriate credit,” Moffett said, “but it is not that far from it. It is not nearly as far as the commercial side is going.”