Podcast Choices Got Your Head Spinning? Pandora Launches 'Genome Project' for a Crowded Medium

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Music curation is so ubiquitous that any regular listener probably has more quality recommendations than they can sift through, but the same tailoring has not yet reached the burgeoning podcast field. Though 26 percent of Americans listen to podcasts monthly and 64 percent have heard of the medium, finding new shows is often a shot in the dark that involves either searching through massive genre tags like "true crime" and "business" or relying on charts and subjective editorial lists.

Pandora is aiming to change all that with its ambitious new Podcast Genome Project, a system of recommendations inspired by their signature Music Genome analysis method, which was initially announced by CEO Roger Lynch in January and launches in beta today.

Pandora opted for a quality over quantity approach with its early forays into podcasting, partnering with massively popular programs This American Life and Serial, while also creating the wide-ranging interview show Questlove Supreme, hosted by The Roots drummer Questlove.

"We saw millions and millions of people over the last couple years engage in just those three podcasts on Pandora, and we thought quite a bit about what our listeners cared about and what was important to them. And we also watched the massive growth of the podcasting industry," says Chris Phillips, chief product officer at Pandora. "We realized that there was fundamentally a consumer problem that we were really well suited to solve, and that was about making it easy to discover and find what podcasts to listen to."

There are a handful of podcast recommendation engines out there like Podstack and Audibant, but none that seem to have the scale and resources of the Podcast Genome Project, and none  that are directly connected to a major streaming service. The curation, a mix of human sorting and technological innovation, takes a granular approach in which it parses material not just by show theme or broad subject matter, but by the contents of the actual discussion.

"We use humans for the quality and machines for the scaling. An example would be picking up on a new topic that is starting to be discussed in podcasts," Phillips explains. "On Questlove Supreme, when Questlove was interviewing Jermaine Dupri, deep into the conversation they started discussing Atlanta politics. It was very fascinating, but Atlanta politics is a topic discussed deep in an episode -- in the 50th minute of an hour-long show. It's a needle in a haystack. So, we would analyze those types of discussion, and our curation team might be scanning those if they're showing up inside a podcast, and they'll create a new tag that then goes out and looks across all the podcasts we have, and that might become a new search term."

Just as they did when they first dove into the medium, Pandora is again partnering with a slew of heavy-hitters in the podcasting world, including Gimlet Media, The Ringer, and NPR. Phillips stresses that, while Pandora's primary goal is to provide listeners with a font of new and thoughtfully curated material, the Genome Project will also benefit the content providers by offering them feedback that was previously difficult to attain.

"We're going to go ahead and give them insight on the quality of their content. For example, we're going to be collecting thumbs up and thumbs down on episodes, so you can imagine that we're going to be able to feed that kid of information back to the creators on an episode you had that didn't have great listenership, or one where people dropped off early," says Phillips. "Today, in the podcast world, that level of insight is completely missing for the creators...They love the huge audience, but I think they're also going to love the insights on the listening activity."

The monetization component of the Podcast Genome project won't roll out until early next year, but Phillips is excited about the potential for ultra-specific ad targeting based on Pandora's ability to break down the topics and themes of shows at a deeper level than other podcast providers.

To start, Pandora will be rolling out the Podcast Genome Project to 1 percent of users, with plans to expand in December. A podcast section will now appear in the same area of the platform as users' music collections, and from there they will both be able to browse generally and scroll through a whole recommended podcast section. And those users who aren't initially selected need not despair, as the most avid podcast listeners will be able to request early access to the new features.

"We do have an option that if people just can't wait they can actually put their name on a list to get into a public beta and we'll be letting people in if they can't wait, if they really want to get in early they can get on the VIP list and we'll let them in," Phillips says.


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