Breaking down music into its component parts helped Pandora build personalized music playlists years before services like Spotify even existed. Could taking a similar approach with podcasts help the streaming-audio company regain the users it has lost to newer services? That’s the bet Pandora is making under Roger Lynch, who joined the company as CEO in 2017.
Announced earlier this year, the podcast genome project is designed to help users find podcasts to listen to based on the characteristics of each show. “Pandora created personalized music discovery — that doesn’t exist in podcasts,” Lynch says. “You might look at a chart, you might see what your friends are [listening to]. There’s nothing personalized about that. We’re building for podcasts what we did for music, which is the podcast genome. So that we can present to you, as a Pandora listener, a personalized experience that will delight you just like we do with music.”
Lynch says the project has become a priority at Pandora, which was founded in 2000 and now reaches 71.4 million people a month. (Spotify now has 170 million active users.) “There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes,” he says. “It’s something that we plan to launch by the end of this year.”
When it launches, the genome project could help more people discover podcasts tailored to their interests, which would in turn generate more revenue for the creators of those shows. Both personalization and revenue generation are core strengths of Pandora, Lynch says. “We think there’s a lot that we could bring to podcasts.”
Of course, Spotify and its rivals are working on personalization features of their own. And it remains to be seen whether podcasts can be broken down into their constituent parts as easily — and as usefully — as songs. But for now, the genome project offers Pandora a chance to be different than its peers — something it has struggled with as on-demand streaming has gradually taken over the industry.
Lynch lays out his thoughts on the future of music on this episode of Converge, an interview game show where tech’s biggest personalities tell us about their wildest dreams. It’s a show that’s easy to win, but not impossible to lose — because, in the final round, I finally get a chance to play and score a few points of my own.
You can read a partial, lightly edited transcript with Bell below, and you’ll find the full episode of Converge above. You can listen to it here or anywhere else you find podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Overcast, Spotify, our RSS feed, and wherever fine podcasts are sold.
You can also cast your eyes on the all-time Converge leaderboard. (Note that a different number of points are available in each game of Converge, making it deeply unfair to all who play.)
Casey Newton: For people who are listening to Pandora or maybe thinking about taking another look at it, what can you tell them about what you’re working on now? Is there anything you can tantalize us with?
Roger Lynch: Well, there’s a bunch of features that we just launched that have been rolling out. Personalized playlists are one good example. Using the data science we have for our premium subscribers, every week, they get a set of personalized playlists. But it’s not just “here’s your playlist” — it’s “here’s your playlist, by genre.” Because for me, I like lots of different kinds of music, but I don’t like them all at once. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a certain kind of music, and other times I want something more laid back. So we personalize it by genre and by mood for every subscriber. That’s a new feature that is getting very strong use in our premium service.
We just launched a family plan for our premium subscribers, and our new feature on that is our family soundtrack. So if you think about being in your car driving — let’s say you have a wife and kids. And inevitably it’s like, whose playlist is gonna play? Well, if you put on our family soundtrack, it takes the best from everyone in the family, and creates a personalized soundtrack looking at the similarities between everybody’s interests.
As for the other big things that are in the works, something that should be near and dear to your heart is our podcast genome. If you think about music discovery before Pandora, you might have listened to the radio, or maybe looked at the Billboard 100. There was nothing personalized about that. And then Pandora created personalized music discovery. That doesn’t exist in podcasts. You might look at a chart, or you might see what your friends are [listening to]. There’s nothing personalized about that. We’re building for podcasts what we did for music, which is the podcast genome. So that we can present to you, as a Pandora listener, a personalized experience that will delight you just like we do with music. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes. It’s something that we plan to launch by the end of this year.
If you think about podcasts, even though listening is growing fast, we think that there are two big problems. One is discovery. Gee, that’s a core strength of Pandora. And the second is monetization. Gee, that’s a core strength of Pandora. And so we think there’s a lot we can bring to podcasts and I’m excited about that launch.
I know that for the music project, you guys had all those talented people that would pick apart music and say, “this is a female singer with country guitars.” All these different identifiers. And so that immediately has me thinking, oh my gosh, what identifiers are they gonna put on me for this podcast? It’s gonna be like, “smarmy host with bad jokes?”
Anyway, do keep me posted on how you guys describe me if you would.
Oh, we will.