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Podcast Survivor: With PodcastOne Norm Pattiz wants to grow “the ultimate form of democratic delivery for radio”

I had the chance to speak with Norm Pattiz, a modern commercial radio pioneer who threw his hat into the podcasting ring last year with the PodcastOne network. Whether you’re a fan of commercial radio or not, Pattiz brings to podcasting decades of experience along with a good measure of vision and boldness that shouldn’t be dismissed.

Pattiz told me that he was about to get married when he was fired from his job as sales manager at channel 13 in Los Angeles. When he got back from an extended honeymoon he met up with a friend in the radio business. In the background the local urban station was playing a 52-hour all-Motown weekend, and it caught Pattiz’s ear. He asked if the program was being packaged for syndication. The answer was “no.”

A week after that, “I’m producing a 24-hour special called the ‘Sound of Motown,’ playing all of the music from 1957 to the present at that time,” Pattiz told me in a phone interview. “Motown is supplying us with exclusive interviews and unreleased tracks, and I went out and sold it to a bunch of advertisers I knew.”

Coming from the television industry Pattiz understood syndication, which was a big business supplying stations with much of their daily program schedule. But at the time Pattiz said “radio syndication was a mom and pop business, selling 1 or 2 shows, mostly for cash. It was a real business, but at an early stage.” He realized that “nobody was exploiting the national market,” and saw his opportunity. Thus, in 1976 Westwood One was born, and it would grow to become the nation’s largest radio syndicator.

From the Early Days of Syndication to the Early Days of Podcasting

More than three decades later Pattiz has taken the same instinct to podcasting, which he said is at a similar stage now that radio syndication was in the 70s. He was motivated to dive into podcasting by meeting Kit Gray, a pioneer in podcast advertising, who was generating sales for programs like the Adam Carolla Show and The Nerdist. “He reminded me of me,” Pattiz said, “the way I started Westwood One.” Gray is now President and COO of Podcast One Sales, which sells ads for the 200 shows that PodcastOne represents.

Many prominent podcast advertisers are known as “direct response,” which means that they sell something the listener can immediately go buy, like flowers or software. Pattiz’s idea with PodcastOne is to go after “Madison Avenue and Fortune 500” advertisers. “We’re doing the same thing as with radio syndication, which was not on the radar of national advertisers” when Westwood One started. Not coincidentally, the advertisers PodcastOne is courting are many of the same that make big buys on broadcast, too.

Finding Talent with Built-in Audiences

Like many podcasts that brought renewed attention to the medium in the last few years, PodcastOne relies on hosts who have a measure of celebrity or a strong following in social media. That’s the logic behind programs with Kathie Lee, pro-wrestler Steve Austin and author/screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis. “Steve Austin was an immediate success,” Pattiz explained, “because he had a community. All we had to do is let them know he was doing a podcast.”

The company’s podcasts book guests with their own social media following. So, “then we can tell for each guest whether or not an audience is drawn to them.” PodcastOne cross-promotes between shows so that “It’s kind of a perpetual promotion machine.” That way, “we don’t have to advertise our programming on other media,” Pattiz said.

While PodcastOne represents about 200 shows to advertisers, just 15 of them are the company’s own productions. PodcastOne is the exclusive ad representative for some networks, like Adam Carollla’s, while also selling ads for other networks on a non-exclusive basis, including public stations KCRW and WNYC. Pattiz said that his company’s own podcasts account for at least 40–50% of their ad inventory.

“The Ultimate Form of Democratic Delivery for Radio”

Coming from the world of broadcast syndication, he said “with podcasts it’s easier. We don’t have to sell it to a program director.” In fact, “Many of the programs we produce would never find a home on radio, because they don’t fit an existing format.”

Pattiz emphasized, “There are no regulations in podcasting.” He continued, “Podcasting is the ultimate form of democratic delivery for radio… There is no control of distribution in podcasting.”

At the same time it seems that some veteran podcasters are nervous or critical about PodcastOne’s entry into the medium, thinking the company brings practices that look old media, along with the influx of money. I asked Pattiz for his reaction to these concerns.

“Why would they be worried?” he asked. “We’re just increasing the revenue coming in to the marketplace. They don’t have to participate. We may be able to monetize all those garage-produced podcasts. We may be able to come up with revenue generating solutions for them as well. As for larger podcasts already doing business in advertising, what are we going to do that will affect their ability to do that?”

I noted that producers engaged in creative endeavors are sometimes suspicious of an influx of money because it threatens to affect the programming.

“We’re not changing any of the creative parameters,” Pattiz answered. “The ultimate arbiter is our content partner. We’ll tell them what we think, but we’ll do what they want to do.”

As for how PodcastOne might affect non-affiliated podcasts, Pattiz noted “There’s a couple of people in the comedy space who prefer to do it on their own. How do we affect that? We’re not a radio station that can drop the show. They can be distributed anywhere. Nobody’s got a gun to anybody’s head.”

On Demand Is the Future of Radio

Pattiz makes it clear he thinks podcasting is “a natural extension of radio. On-demand has to be embraced by the radio community.” Given this, I asked him for his opinion about the recent Inside Radio survey in which 66% of radio professionals said that pure play online streaming and webcasting are not a threat.

Pattiz’s response: “They’re wrong.” He paused a moment and then explained, “Look, there’s two major (radio) owners, and they’re married to terrestrial broadcasting. They have a mountain of debt. They can’t go out to the financial community and say that they’ve got a model that’s trending downward. With that kind of debt you don’t have the cash to spend on these things.”

By contrast, Pattiz said, “As an individual, I have more flexibility. It’s just how big my piggy bank is and how much I’m willing to put at risk. I need to validate this industry (with) metrics that advertisers will accept, standardized billing practices, a national radio marketing and sales teams. Those are all things that don’t exist in podcasting.”

Ultimately, he said, “The more players with the resources to drive this industry, the better. We can’t do this ourselves… If we can take this business from reaching 35% to 60–70% of the (internet) population, everyone will benefit.”

I hope Pattiz is right, that increased interest in podcasting, including interest from national advertisers, results in a rising tide that lifts all boats. I also hope that podcasting’s spirit of independence and experimentation not only remains, but is able to flourish, even as more mainstream-oriented programs enter the medium.

There certainly is a fighting chance, as long as distribution remains as open and free as it is now. Of course, that probably will have less to do with companies like PodcastOne, than with the likes of AT&T, Verizon, the FCC and Congress.

We cover podcasting news and analysis every Wednesday in our Podcast Survivor feature.

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