Suzanne Grimes CES

Some broadcasters may not be sure that podcasting is where their energies should be focused, but they may be missing the boat. Westwood One President Suzanne Grimes says podcasting is helping to introduce fresh ideas, revenue and listeners to her radio network’s core business. “We can go beyond innovation that delivers new revenue streams and actually find some innovation that circles back to, also deliver against, the core business in a way that rejuvenates the core business,” she said

Speaking at the Shelly Palmer Innovation Series Summit at CES in Las Vegas last week, Grimes said when the idea to rebroadcast The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro Show podcast on the radio was first proposed two years ago it met with skepticism. But after seeing early success Westwood One expanded the show to three hours with the addition of two radio-only hours. Today Shapiro clears on more than 200 stations and in the “platform wars” she thinks it’s giving radio a new hand to play. “It's bringing younger talent and younger listeners to the radio platform and the radio platform is driving downloads for the podcast,” said Grimes. “So it's a complete ‘360 cycle’ and if we can continue to perpetuate that, I think it bodes very well for the audio industry broadly and the ad opportunities it can bring to partners who are looking for ways to connect with listeners.”

Podcasting and radio may go hand in hand, but Grimes said it has taken some “cultural work” to get some broadcasters onboard. She said some veteran radio programmers didn’t initially see podcasting as a good thing for FM/AM radio. “They looked at it as a big threat potentially stealing their audience,” said Grimes. “They abhorred the notion of us doing podcast promotion on our air and possibly encouraging them to sample something else.”

Grimes conceded to the CES crowd that it took a “significant amount of communication” inside Westwood One and its parent Cumulus Media to persuade some radio programmers that podcasting could make the company “bigger and stronger” rather than hurting the business. Grimes said it also took a courage of conviction on the part of Westwood One’s podcast team.

Founded in 1976, Westwood One was similar to a lot of radio companies as it was slow to embrace podcasting. It waited until three years ago to go full throttle on the medium. “We were inspired by one hundred million or more Americans listening to podcasts and in 2017 decided to really step up and make an all-in commitment to the space,” Grimes said. Within a year they saw their 40 million monthly download numbers more than double, thanks in large part to a portfolio of radio talent that included many political-focused talk shows. “That suggested there really was opportunity,” she said.

As a radio network, Grimes said there were built-in advantages such as having production facilities around the country, a team of producers already on staff, and sales teams ready to sell the inventory. “From the first year we were profitable, which I think is an accomplishment too,” she said.

Westwood One has targeted three main show genres to date. It is led by News and Talk, with a focus on political talk to leverage the radio network’s existing talent base. “Leading up to the 2020 election I think that entire space will continue to be really important,” said Grimes. In preparation, she said Westwood One has launched several new shows.

The network is also looking to leverage its sports play-by-play rights portfolio to create several sports-focused podcasts. In recent months that has led former NFLer Pat McAfree to move his The Pat McAfee Show 2.0 podcast to Westwood One Podcast Network and launch a Monday-to-Friday sports talk program that airs from 10am-12pm ET. “He's irreverent, funny, and really striking a chord,” said Grimes. And last month it launched Esports 30 with Kevin Knocke, a new show covering Esports news and featuring interviews with industry personalities, celebrities, athletes, influencers and enthusiasts.

Another vertical Westwood One has targeted is under the Life and Entertainment banner. “We’re trying to tap into some other emotions, the human experience so to speak,” Grimes said during the CES panel. Its biggest partner in that space has been with Lemonada Media. And Westwood One is also looking to build an audience in the Business, Money and Tech genre. “Those are the areas where we're doubling down,” she said.