Wading into the sardine can-crowded podcasting space takes a lot more these days than it did just a few years ago. Or even a few days ago.
Any celebrity entering the fray now needs to be ready to compete with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Dax Shepard, and the inexhaustibly chatty Conan O’Brien. A punchy new network hoping to emulate the success of Gimlet, which Spotify just purchased along with Anchor Media for a hefty price tag, would require that brand’s same knack for producing high-pedigree marquee hits. Anyone with sights on becoming the next Chapo Trap House, a podcast which rakes in an elite sports car’s worth of Patreon money each month, had better pray for a miracle.
But perhaps nothing embodies the big ticket, Silicon Valley-like atmosphere entering the podcast world right now more than the emergence of newcomer Himalaya—an ambitious new podcast platform and network that arrives today with an unheard-of for podcasting $100M in initial funding.
Just how new is that kind of money in this space right out of the gate? Luminary Media grabbed headlines last year with boasts of its $40M in funds, which now sounds like a relative pittance.
Himalaya may be brand new but it’s meant to emulate something deeply familiar to 500 million global listeners: Chinese audio network Ximalaya FM. The similarly named new venture comes backed by Ximalaya, as well as private-equity giant General Atlantic and global quant trader SIG. These are not the kind of deep-pocketed investors any preceding podcast entrepreneur has enjoyed.
Himalaya’s U.S. launch is being overseen largely by VP of global partnerships, Peter Vincer, who recently helped turn the Ximalaya-inspired CastBox into one of the U.S.’s top podcasting apps. Vincer’s plan for Himalaya involves taking the same creator-centered approach he applied to CastBox, and mixing in new methods for audience growth, engagement, and monetization. Oh, and variety as well: Vincer projects Himalaya will have hundreds of shows on its roster by the end of 2019. The kind of spending required to realize all these lofty ambitions is why the company comes with Marvel movie-level funding.
Here’s what that kind of money means for Himalaya: It’s attracting a healthy mix of existing hit podcasts as well as investing in promising originals. It has a 50-person engineering team plugging away at new features, high production values, and resources for creators. It intends to develop customized marketing plans for growing each and every show. And unlike in China, where premium content revenue dwarfs ad-supported revenue, Himalaya is an open-distribution platform. Users can listen to the network’s shows not just on its app but across most podcast platforms and with none of it locked behind a paywall.
“It’s taken us up to this point to realize you can be a platform and you can do right by creators by helping them grow their shows and giving them maximum money and also not sticking everything behind a paywall,” Vincer says. “Ultimately, that hurts creators, and it’s not the best decision for the platform, because, sure, we could drive more traffic if you can only hear it here, but we’d be limiting the audience.”
The paywall-based Patreon model works thusly: A creator painstakingly builds audience loyalty with a free podcast, getting them hooked like a drug dealer, before rolling out additional content and bonuses behind the paywall. When it works, as in the case of Chapo Trap House, it works amazingly well. But in order to get to the success threshold where rolling out a Patreon even makes sense, it helps to have a network. Vincer believes that the network can offer the leverage of an accumulated audience and a strong promotional arm. But in some cases, those benefits come with the significant costs of turning over a high percentage of profits or signing away a whole back catalog of IP.
Himalaya wants to streamline this whole process: providing the production and marketing resources to launch and grow shows, rewarding audiences for their loyalty with listener-friendly features and a built-in community, and helping creators monetize in a variety of ways, including allowing listeners to tip them from within the app as well as offer follower bonus for bringing more listeners over to Himalaya. “When you can come at it from a much more strategic mindset where you give more back to creators, it’s easier to grow,” Vincer says. “Even if we don’t cover our costs, we’re willing to pay an amount at a cost per acquired user much like any other tech platform would and come at it from that perspective rather than a content play of how much can we make off these things on average.”
Over the course of launching, Vincer has brought on board partners like the Dallas Mavericks, Studio71, Acast, Panoply Media’s Megaphone, and Starburns Industries, the latter of which brings its entire slate of podcasts, including Dan Harmon’s Harmontown. Some of the new shows created with these partners include It’s Not About the Podcast, from Vanderpump Rules star and scenester James Kennedy, No Chill podcast with NBA sensation Gilbert Arenas, and Ozy Confidential, a new podcast from the online media company.
As for the features on the platform, there’s a sleep timer and subscription importing, and the ability to like and comment on episodes in-app. Listeners in the app also have the option of getting early access to some podcasts–24 hours before those on other platforms. In terms of unique offerings, though, Himalaya is also unveiling episodic playlists, which allow listeners to curate specific podcast episodes and share them socially. If the platform takes off the way Himalaya and its backers hope, perhaps they’ll even have their own Spotify Wrapped-style moment at the end of the year, with users sharing top ten playlists of their favorite shows.
The biggest feature of all, Vincer believes, is the content itself, along with Himalaya’s ability to grow its listenership. To get a further grasp on the latter, he is also relying on experience from partners like Starburns Industries’ Jason Smith, who launched the enormous hit, My Favorite Murder, years ago and who has deftly navigated the shifting landscape of podcasts ever since. “I didn’t used to talk to CAA or WME about minimum guarantees and agency requirements,” Smith says. “I talked to the comedians who host the shows directly–up until the last two years. For a long time, podcasts were just a side hustle for a lot of people, where it was definitely more about promoting themselves. The expectations on these shows now is that they will monetize heavily. And it takes something extra now to separate a show from all the noise.”
Obviously the bet is that it takes something like Himalaya, which is entering the space at a time when Apple Podcasts is rapidly ceding ground to other platforms like Spotify, and the market is opening up to a more diverse group of listeners.
Even though podcasts were essentially invented by Apple in 2006, they’ve had an indie sensibility for a long time. Those days appear to be over.