Q&A With Andy Toh, Chief Architect And General Manager Of Blogtalkradio
July 26, 2016
Andy Toh is the Chief Architect and General Manager of BlogTalkRadio, the world's largest online talk radio and podcast hosting platform. Prior to joining BlogTalkRadio in early 2014, Andy was at About.com, a top 20 Internet property, and before that he was the Head of Product at TheNewsMarket.com, where he designed and managed a platform for delivering broadcast-quality video content to newsrooms around the world and across the web. I asked him some questions about the podcasting space.
1. Tell us about your background. How did you become involved with BlogTalkRadio?
My background is squarely in digital media, with the early stage of my career in a journalist-focused online video startup, which we grew to an exit, then at About.com where I held a special projects role that blended technology and strategy across product, technology and data sciences to create intelligent tools for creators and the business. I was introduced to the founders of BlogTalkRadio as far back as 2012 and have been in close touch with them about the business for awhile. In late 2013, their Founder/CEO needed to exit to spin off a division and run it, and he, along with the board were seeking opportunities to take the business in a new direction, and we got back in touch again.
I come from a big digital media background and I think at that time, it was becoming clear that podcasting was going to be headed in the direction of the rest of digital media. When they approached me with the brief, I took a look at the business fundamentals and figured some meaningful industry-impacting things could be done with it, so here I am.
2. Tell us what BlogTalkRadio does. What does it provide for content creators? Describe the experience for content consumers.
BlogTalkRadio has traditionally been known as a podcast publishing platform with a unique interview tool that enables podcasters to host live shows featuring interviews with geographically dispersed guests with nothing but a laptop, a mic and an internet connection. The shows created from these tools are then archived and published as a podcast and syndicated to podcast apps in both the iOS and Android ecosystems.
What many people don't know is, we also have many hosts use our system to upload their high quality fully pre-produced episodes and use us purely as a highly scalable, unlimited podcast publishing platform. These systems continue to sit in the center of our stack, but our mission and platform has significantly evolved.
Since I took the reins alongside Co-Founder and now Chief Revenue Officer Bob Charish, we've completely overhauled the company mission and we are now very much focused on helping podcasters thrive and profit fairly from their work. So instead of being a business focused on taking money from podcasters, we are now mostly focused on helping (a) podcasters who are currently left out of the monetization discussion - those with less than 5,000 per episode listens - extract returns from their content, and capture the lion's share of their content earnings, and (b) podcasters who are getting more than 5000 listens/episode fully maximize their revenue potential via our proprietary monetization innovations. We really see this as the heart of our mission - in order for podcasting to grow, we as industry players serving and supporting podcasters have to first be focused on getting revenues in the hands of more podcasters than the status quo, which really only takes care of the top 8% of podcasters, if that. Today, a live read campaign pays a certain CPM for 45-60 days of listens of every new episode's life. The read, typically edited INTO the content, stays on after the campaign stops paying, which means that the CPM that is offered for the campaign effectively goes lower and lower as your episode keeps getting listened to. This also meant that podcasters can only monetize their new episodes, for only the beginning of each episode's life, when very often, their back catalogs were getting a ton of listening activity that mostly goes untapped.
Back in 2014, we launched a dynamic audio ad insertion system that enables podcasters who currently do not meet live read download listen quotas to start earning revenues for their content, while giving podcasters who met those quotas a means to significantly increase their revenues by extracting further revenues through their back catalog and ad load decisions that they control. Our technology enabled podcasters to do a couple of things (a) they are now able to tap into all the listening activity on their content IN ADDITION TO the first 45-60 day life of their new episodes, like with live read campaigns, (b) they can make ad load decisions that multiply the number of sellable impressions they can offer to the ad marketplace, and (c) they can tap into advertisers who want to buy audiences, not shows, meaning they no longer have to meet the show level audience quotas in order to qualify for large campaign buys, thus breaking the "top 8-percenter-only" monetization gridlock in our industry.
We've been running this system in stealth mode, scaling it progressively over time before marketing it because we knew the technology needed time to mature. In parallel, we've also now built an advertiser marketplace where audio advertisers, both live read and spot advertisers, can make competitive bids for podcast audiences very much in the same way mature digital media outside of podcasting is being bought and sold today. For all the shows we help monetize today, whether they originate on BlogTalkRadio or elsewhere, Ads are dynamically inserted and swapped out when they expire across both streams and downloads, pre/post/mid content based on the podcaster's choice. These capabilities, coupled with the buyer network that we have built, enables us to really MAXIMIZE the returns each impression gets for our host community. We've been quietly running this platform for two years now and Podcast Movement 2016 was the first time we publicly offered it to the eco system - podcasters, radio concerns, publishers and other partners. We think this capability can benefit the whole industry, so we're definitely not taking a walled garden approach to this. Today, any podcaster should be able to tap into it, no matter where they are hosted, should their hosting companies support their efforts to grow their earnings.
For the listener, the experience of a BlogTalkRadio powered podcast is really no different from any other podcast. You can listen to a BlogTalkRadio powered podcast on the Apple podcast app or any other podcatcher, via embeddable streaming players we provide in twitter and Facebook, or on the podcasters' personal websites, or on BlogTalkRadio's website, which is highly trafficked with millions of page views a month.
3. Tell us what you've learned as you've moved into the audio content space.
I think there are really two main segments of the digital audio content space - music, and spoken word. I think the music side is extremely evolved, with highly sophisticated economic infrastructure that matches the rest of the digital media eco system, and a largely consolidated distribution landscape with a couple of big winners, and measurement standards that are largely agreed upon. Most of your readers would be familiar with developments on that front. On the spoken word side however, I think we have a very exciting nascent space with an interesting structural dynamic. While in traditional publishing a content creator generally publishes to ONE outlet and is dependent on that one outlet for all their audience reach, podcasting, owing to its fundamentally syndicated nature via RSS, a creator is not tied to any one distribution outlet like Apple Podcasts App, Stitcher, Pocketcasts and many others.
The last mile in podcasting technically consists of content aggregators that are not focused on creating any content themselves. So in a sense, no aggregator has significant capabilities advantage over the other other than through its own ability to leverage the content everyone has access to, to satisfy its own listeners, and its unique channels it taps to grow its own user base. No aggregator has leverage over the content creators because content creators technically can pick and choose who they want to syndicate their content to. I think this is a powerful dynamic that podcasters and indeed industry has to maintain. Aggregators have to innovate and be transparent in listener activity against content to sustain their continued supply of content from creators, and podcasters have to continue to support and encourage this rich distribution mix for their content to ensure that they have control over their destinies.
This democratized, open and free distribution dynamic is what makes the spoken word audio space very interesting, particularly for content originators.
4. What are some of the key differences you see in the ways content creators approach live streaming and on-demand audio (podcasting)? What do those differences mean for a company like BlogTalkRadio?
I think this is increasingly an irrelevant question for BlogTalkRadio. Technically, the BlogTalkRadio platform can and has already been doing both at massive scale. Either way it swings we're well positioned. From a production standpoint to a creator however, I do believe Live requires more preparation and experience, but both require skillful post production to maximize on demand listenership. Live is sexy, and naturally many ex radio folks are drawn to it, but I think many of our hosts who are on a live-then-on-demand basis, will tell you that the LARGE MAJORITY of their listening activity happens after the fact. Now, this is just how things have evolved for us through the years. Should live take a bigger role in the future, we're already covered, but for now, on demand consumption appears to be what consumers prefer in spoken word audio.
5. Make some predictions: Where do you see the podcasting space in five years?
Prediction #1 - Continued drive towards quality content will accelerate audience growth
If we look at the 300,000+ podcasts that have come thru this eco system as a long term 'survival of the fittest' contest, the ones that are at the top are those that have proven to be the winners. While the last 10-12 years were a period of wild experimentation, I think some success models are emerging and they are going to catch on with podcasters seeking to create their own independent media enterprises, and networks hoping to capitalize on their programming expertise to build cohorts of highly successful podcasts. People are going to do more of what works and continued listener growth will likely start to accelerate in the coming 5 years.
Prediction #2 - More podcasters will be able to monetize their content, and top podcasters will be able to significantly grow their earnings.
I think the podcasting space has a problem with artificial scarcity, where only the top 8% of podcasts are deemed as "sellable." This is largely owing to the direct sold, manually executed nature of the dominant form of podcast advertising today - host reads that are integrated into podcast episodes, but that only pay for the first 45-60 days. With dynamic ad insertion and programmatic marketplaces set up very much like how the rest of digital media is set up now available in podcasting, advertisers no longer have to buy reach at the show level, but can aggregate audiences across many shows and execute at scale across large media plans. This is a good thing for podcasters who are not in the elite top 8-percent. It is great for the 8 percenters too, because they can now monetize their back catalogs and get incremental revenues to what they are getting today.
Part of this will also be fueled by a richer diversity of ad formats in podcasting beyond host read ads, to audio spots increasingly tailored to podcasting, segments, and as seen over the last year, full-on native buys. I think people in tech have a bad habit of going "A is the new thing, B is dead"...when in reality what actually happens is that things co-exist to create new norms. Advertisers generally demand different ways to participate in a media eco system - some more white glove, custom, others more bread and butter with less friction.
Prediction #3 - Competitive dynamic emerges on the buy side through automation
Once the available inventory becomes unlocked, maximized, targetable and executable at scale, I think the eco system will evolve from a largely direct sold, manually executed paradigm to one where direct sales will account for premium sales that account for a smaller share of sold inventory, whereas programmatic will move the bread and butter inventory with minimal friction at massive scale. 2/3s of digital ads are sold programmatically today and ad yields are no longer at "bottom of the barrel" or "remnant" prices levels because of the competitive dynamic of advertisers bidding for the same audiences. While there will always be voices that resist such advances in media eco systems, we know from history that technology drives systems towards efficiency. If podcast audiences continue to grow, the same thing will likely happen here.