The week of September 13, 2015

Why Howl could be much more than the ‘Netflix for podcasts’

By Patrick Caldwell

Say this for Midroll Media: It knows its messaging.

When the podcast advertising network launched the premium version of Howl, its new podcast player, last month, observers may have noticed steady comparisons to a certain much-loved online entertainment titan.

“Podcasting is getting its own version of Netflix,” wrote the Financial Times. “Say hello to Howl, the new ‘Netflix of Podcasts,’” implored Splitsider. “Is Howl ‘the Netflix of Podcasts’ we’ve been waiting for?” asked Fast Company’s in-depth report.

In a sense, calling Howl the “Netflix of Podcasts” sells short its ambitions. With Howl, Midroll is offering an app and Web player that hosts Earwolf (and its sister network, Wolfpop) shows, as well as renowned interview show WTF With Marc Maron. The free version has the last six months of shows. Spring for the premium version at $5 a month, though, and you get access to the complete archives of WTF, as well as Earwolf and Wolfpop shows, without ads. You also get an array of Comedy Central specials from comedians like Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari, behind-the-scenes photos, live recordings, commentary, and other fan-enticing bonuses.

Crucially, though, there’s more: a bevy of original podcasts, exclusive to Howl, ranging from comedian and actress Lauren Lapkus’s dive into the world of psychics (Psychic Show With Lauren Lapkus) to Onion A.V. Club writers Sean O’Neal and Erik Adams’s exploration of bizarre fan theories (AV Club: I Know It Sounds Crazy). Some are limited series or even one-shot documentaries, still a relative rarity in the podcasting world. Many have released their entire runs (or at least multiple episodes) all at once, enabling both House of Cards-style binge-watching and deep dives into the archives of a newly discovered show—a podcast listener rite of passage if there ever was one.

Calling Howl the “Netflix of Podcasts” sells short its ambitions.

For now, Howl offers only its own programming. But the service’s ultimate goal is to be a one-stop shop for podcasts, hosting Howl’s own original content but also aggregating other feeds, similar to podcatcher apps like Downcast, Pocket Casts, or Apple’s own Podcasts. Imagine if Netflix offered access not only to its own original and licensed content, but also practically every movie and TV show produced, no matter how obscure—and all wrapped up in a user-friendly interface to boot.

“We want to be the place where you go and listen to Freakonomics, if you like Freakonomics, or you listen to Radiolab, if you like Radiolab, because the listener experience is that much better than any other player out there,” Midroll CEO Adam Sachs told Fast Company.

A new model?

To be fair, even assuming Howl delivers on its promises, it isn’t quite as magical an idea as our theoretical Netflix-with-everything-ever. After all, those podcasts Howl plans to aggregate are freely available already. But combining a podcatcher with a slate of original, exclusive programming, all in one easy-to-use application, is an ambitious idea.

It’s also largely untested: The service only launched its premium tier in August. But for Howl to succeed—for it to be able to attract, hold, and grow an audience beyond the already-converted Earwolf and Wolfpop fans—it would be better off focusing the lion’s share of its energies on original content, rather than aggregation. The user experience has never been simpler, and podcasts have never been more readily available on a wide array of platforms and devices. There’s little value to add in a world already so replete with quality podcatchers.

But there’s always an appetite for compelling, original content. If Howl can leverage both the profiles of its more popular shows and its subscriber revenue, it could build a home for creative, interesting works—including, hopefully, some that buck the prevailing trend of long-running series centered around interviews or group discussions. Podcasting doesn’t desperately need another Stitcher. But another Serial—a unique, intriguing series that gets audiences talking and does something new with the medium? That’s always welcome.

There’s little value to add in a world already so replete with quality podcatchers.

Midroll has as good a shot at finding a way to create and monetize unorthodox new shows as any other outfit in podcasting. The company emerged last year from the union of two networks: Midroll and Earwolf, which is home to many of the most popular shows, including Comedy Bang! Bang! and How Did This Get Made? Midroll places ads on more than 200 podcasts, ranging from Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast to Nerdist to programs on Kevin Smith’s SModcast network. It works with over 100 advertisers, many of which will be imminently familiar to listeners. (If you’ve ever wondered why ads for Audible or Squarespace are ubiquitous on your favorite shows, Midroll is part of the reason why.)

It’s a smart and growing business strategy, and it’s worked out well for Midroll, which was purchased by the broadcast media giant E.W. Scripps Company earlier this year. Podcast advertising is surprisingly successful and lucrative compared to other forms of Web advertising because it’s proven to be effective. “Large and small advertisers report a significant upside to the campaigns they run on podcasts,” wrote tech columnist Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times. “And ad rates on top-tier podcasts approach $100 per thousand listeners, which is many times what it costs advertisers to reach audiences in most other digital formats.”

The rough path forward

Despite Midroll’s considerable savvy, Howl has had a difficult launch. The app and service are buggy, and many promised features have yet to materialize, which has spawned multiple megathreads of frustration with Howl and complaints on Earwolf’s dedicated subreddit. Users have complained of disappearing downloads and other glitches. As of this writing, the Web player on does not work. The promised ad-free archives are thus far missing in action. Howl’s original programs haven’t released new content since the launch window—understandable for the limited-run series, but disappointing for a few shows that listeners may have reasonably assumed were meant to be ongoing. And the app has yet to be released on Android (though development is underway), effectively shutting out a huge portion of the potential audience.

Howl, in other words, seems a long way away from providing the seamless user experience it’s promised. But that’s OK: We don’t really need Howl to serve that role, necessarily. Podcasts today are more accessible than they’ve ever been, thanks to a proliferation of quality apps on multiple platforms. And discovering great shows (among a rising ocean of them) has gotten less challenging, too. More sites are covering the medium and offering recommendations, and networks like Earwolf, Maximum Fun, and Gimlet have clearly defined sensibilities: If you like one show on the network, you’ll probably like others.

It’s hard to imagine Howl substantively improving on the current crop of podcatchers. But its support for exclusive content—especially shows that might be risky and experimental—is exciting.

Serial told a compelling, compact story. It’s not the first or only limited-run series, just the first to be widely successful.

Consider the Serial effect. The journalistic true crime series was the first to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes, sat comfortably atop the charts (even months after its conclusion, it’s held steadily in the iTunes top 10), and had more than a million unique listeners per episode. It spawned unofficial spinoffs, some of which (Serial Dynasty, Undisclosed: the State v. Adnan Syed) continue to run and have themselves become chart-toppers. It was the first water-cooler podcast, bringing attention to the entire medium and attracting parodies from Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street, and it’s changed the visibility and reach of podcasting, helping attract advertisers and mainstream attention.

“We are talking to Fortune 500 companies, which did not happen as much a year ago,” Midroll’s Erik Diehn, vice president of business development, told Digiday earlier this year. “Part of that is Serial. Not that Serial changed the audience dramatically, but the broader coverage of the show and the recognition of the medium as an actual viable form suddenly made it OK for people in large marketing departments and agencies to start talking about it.”

Crucially, Serial did all this while defying commonly held expectations of what makes many podcasts successful. The most popular shows have gotten there through slow, constant growth. It can take years to find a creative rhythm, attract a substantial audience, and lure advertisers. Serial told a compelling, compact story—a self-contained serialized nonfiction narrative with heavy reporting. It’s not the first or only limited-run series, just the first to be widely successful.

Serial succeeded thanks to a confluence of factors: quality, cross-promotion on the massively popular This American Life, public radio funding, and a fascinating case. It was a unique phenomenon that’s unlikely to recur.

Howl’s launch represents, potentially, a similarly fertile breeding ground for interesting new podcasts that take unexpected directions with the medium—shows that play with subject matter, format, attitude, and audience in novel ways. Podcasting doesn’t hurt for a lack of quality shows, nor inventive ones. The medium does have examples of experimental audio drama (The Truth), serialized parodic science fiction (Welcome to Night Vale), and bizarrely high-concept non-premises (The Worst Idea of All Time, in which two friends watch the execrable Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups 2 every week for a year …. and then talk about it).

But more experimentation is always welcome, and Howl seems to be generally interested in providing it—especially, to hear its executives tell it, by taking advantage of Howl’s ability to do one-off documentaries and limited-run series. There’s a variety of ways to monetize a podcast and generate revenue for the people who produce it—Patreon, voluntary subscriptions, donations, ad sales, merchandise, live shows—but most of these methods favor long-running shows. With Howl, shorter, more experimental shows could be subsidized by their more popular brethren—a very familiar media model, but one that hasn’t yet arrived in podcasting.   

Howl seems a long way away from providing the seamless user experience it’s promised. But that’s OK.

“One limiting factor is that if you want to create a viable podcast, you really need to create a show that is long running, has a cost structure where the costs can stay relatively low and you can do 30-50 episodes per year, build up an audience, get ad sponsorships,” Sachs told Fast Company. “We have documentaries that are a single episode of an hour and five minutes long, and there is only going to be a single episode. You could never afford to make an audio documentary that was just an hour long because you would never be able to monetize that with ads.”

In the best of all possible worlds, Howl would emulate Netflix—but not just in providing one-stop access to thousands of podcasts. Netflix, which began by providing access to very nearly every DVD you could ever want, has become a progressively more interesting producer of original content. That content may or may not account for much of the service’s popularity (absent any ratings numbers from the famously secretive streamer, we don’t really know for sure), but it does give us fascinating TV shows we might not have gotten otherwise. If Howl can do the same, it could be something special. And every podcast listener looking for something new and different could benefit.

Assuming they’re willing to pay up.

Illustration by Max Fleishman