There’s been a possible power shift in the podcast business.
SiriusXM, the satellite radio giant, is buying Stitcher, a prominent fixture in the podcast industry, for about $300 million, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. The deal would be the biggest podcast acquisition to date, and it’s expected to close sometime this week. The podcast company had been owned by E.W. Scripps, the Cincinnati-based broadcasting company, which acquired Midroll Media in 2015 and Stitcher in 2016, before rebranding the whole operation under the Stitcher banner a few years later.
Stitcher is the parent company of some of the oldest podcast-specific brands in the business, including the Earwolf comedy-podcast network; the highly popular My Favorite Murder podcast and its imprint Exactly Right; and shows like LeVar Burton Reads, The Sporkful, and The Dream. The company is also well-known as a leading ad-sales agency, and over the past few years, it has developed a reputation as a good production partner — something that’s increasingly valuable as more big media companies enter the space.
In Stitcher, SiriusXM will be getting a solid starter kit of sorts, which the company will need if it wants to take a crack at the podcast thing. The satellite radio company is one of the biggest audio platforms out there (it also owns the music-streaming service Pandora), but it has yet to develop a coherent approach to podcasting. The company has made a series of piecemeal efforts that hasn’t translated to very much — at least, from an audience perspective — including an early and confusing “exclusive streaming deal” with This American Life (now defunct); a stab at a “Podcast Genome Project,” which doesn’t seem to be particularly effective; a partnership with Marvel that hasn’t made much noise; and some original programming efforts like the Questlove podcast, which has since moved to iHeartMedia.
Acquiring Stitcher doesn’t automatically grant SiriusXM a coherent strategy, but it does provide a preexisting podcast audience and a vessel through which it can run a more focused effort in the space. There is also a chance that SiriusXM could simply break up Stitcher and absorb its various podcasting components into different aspects of its existing business. Ultimately, that will depend on how SiriusXM views podcasting: as a stand-alone domain or as a complementary layer to what the company already has. Given the company’s curious blend of consumer-facing brands, it might be some time before we find out what SiriusXM actually wants to do with Stitcher and its podcast starter kit. From a distance, this acquisition strikes me as a “make a deal now, figure it out later” move.
Which also means it might be some time before we find out whether this development will be good or bad for Stitcher fans specifically, and podcast audiences in general. SiriusXM is a fairly old-school radio operation, one that leans heavy on flashy talent deals — remember that the company was basically built around Howard Stern, who is still its crown jewel and currently in contract-renewal negotiations — and is broadly structured around a push for scale at all costs.
The concern is that SiriusXM’s ownership may end up reshaping and fundamentally killing what makes Stitcher a historically important fixture in the podcast ecosystem. That, in turn, would leave podcast creators with one less reliable partner, and podcast audiences with one less interesting publisher.