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Here’s Why Pandora Will Eventually Be in the Spoken Word Business, Too


Today, Pandora (and pretty much every other online radio provider) is famous for its music, not its talk.

That’s going to change.

Yes, I know Pandora has comedy content driven by the secret sauce of its “genome project.” But I’m talking about much more.

Yes, I know there are other platforms out there featuring various flavors of spoken word, most of which is repurposed from terrestrial commercial and public radio.

Yes, I know there’s a world of podcasting which is virtually all spoken word – the best of which is likewise repurposed from radio or TV, while most of the rest is way down the proverbial long tail of interest and attention.

Why will Pandora and most of the rest eventually take a spoken word path?

The answer is summed up best by Amazon’s Ray Price, when asked why he launched Amazon Studios, which produces all of Amazon’s original video content:

I was running Amazon Instant Video for a period of time, and I came to the conclusion that it was inevitable that basically everybody in the business was going to get into original content, because if you’re licensing and you go to the studio they will say, “OK, here’s exactly the same stuff as your competitor down the street will get.” Everyone’s looking for opportunities to be special and different, and it seemed like original content was inevitably going to be that thing.

In other words, why should consumers choose YOUR brand if it contains the same content as any other brand LIKE yours? What’s UNIQUE to your brand? What’s your “original content”?

While Pandora has technology exclusives (or technology that is arguably exclusive) and the huge benefit of its first-mover advantage, where’s their unique original content?

The answer? Coming.

Pandora will take a slower path to this destination than smaller players because it has the biggest footprint and thus the most patience, while the smaller guys have to worry about survival and risk getting lost in Pandora’s wake.

But come it shall.

So what will this future look (or sound) like?

Will it mean hiring out of work radio morning show stars or competing against terrestrial radio brands for their expensive talent?

No, it will not.

Most radio names are local or regional or niche stars, while online radio is national at least. Any hire would be made to have national impact, and that means favoring names with national recognition – folks with a built in “want to hear.”

Any hire would be demographically relevant – so no political talk radio wonks.

Somebody from the sports world is a possibility, but will probably not be the first hire (that said, I have no doubt the expression “Pandora Sports” will one day be part of your everyday vernacular – go squat on the domain now – as of this writing it’s still available).

What I most expect is that Pandora will make a single big hire – somebody who is not on the radio now but who has a national profile and is probably most famous in the entertainment world – music, comedy, or both. Someone with extensive reach in social media. Someone in the bullseye of TMZ.

This will be a big gamble because it will not be an “established” show – it will be similar to the kinds of gambles the TV networks make when they mint new late-night shows or swap hosts. It will be similar to the gambles taken by Amazon with Amazon Studios.

One hire means one promotional push – one message – one thing for every Pandora and would-be Pandora listener to understand. One thing for other media to focus on.

Why provide spoken word content via online radio when it’s all over the place on podcasting? 

Because the experience of listening to Pandora is, like terrestrial radio, a “lean back” one for the most part. Most of Pandora’s usage is simply listening, not channel-making or thumbing-up or -down or even skipping. Sometimes – most times – an audience simply wants to be entertained and informed and doesn’t want to interact with their media platform in order to experience the media on that platform. They want somebody else to curate their experience and to do it well enough to suit them.

Star-driven content? Wait, isn’t that the SiriusXM strategy?

If somebody could explain the SiriusXM strategy to me, that would be fabulous. Right now it strikes me as “We throw news releases against the wall to see what sticks, and then we have no way of measuring what sticks.”

But what does this mean for Pandora’s various Genome Projects?

Pandora has pinned much of its strategy on its pervasively promotable “genome projects” (music and comedy, respectively) – their magical ability to tailor a mix of content to your individual tastes. But the more they invest in a home-grown “show” the less emphasis there will be on pleasing everyone’s individual tastes and the more emphasis there will be on pleasing the communal tastes. This is exactly the path of Netflix and Amazon, by the way – both offer numerous opportunities to customize, yet both invest in original content which they want seen by as many eyes as possible, personalization be damned.

In other words, “hits” matter, and original “hits” matter most of all.

Even in the tech-focused world of Pandora, technology will yield to content.

And it may happen sooner than you think.

Maybe not first with Pandora…Remember to keep an eye on those boys and girls in Cupertino….

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