Chief content officer has helped position company as major player in podcasting
By Anne Steele
Spotify Technology SA got serious about podcasts less than two years ago, but some of the biggest names in culture — Joe Rogan, Michelle Obama and Kim Kardashian West — have already signed on with the company. Getting those high-profile figures to the table was Dawn Ostroff, an executive who’s made her career tackling the next big thing in media.
Podcasts need to become a big moneymaker if the nearly $50 billion company is to become profitable. It is Ms. Ostroff’s job as chief content officer to make Spotify less reliant on music, and the company has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to make it happen.
She has helped position Spotify as a major player — and sparked an arms race for podcasting companies and talent — with deals for Gimlet Media, Anchor FM, Parcast Studios and Bill Simmons’s the Ringer. The streaming company now has more than 1.5 million podcasts on its platform, up from 185,000 in 2018.
Parcast founder Max Cutler said he had no intention of selling his self-funded network, home to hit true-crime shows like “Serial Killers” and “Unsolved Murders.” Ms. Ostroff saw in Parcast’s thousands of hours of programs both a library of evergreen shows and opportunity to grow.
The executive promised Mr. Cutler backing to produce more shows more frequently and elaborately. She also offered access to a trove of in-depth analytics that would tell Parcast who its listeners were and what they liked — the Holy Grail for podcasters, for whom reliable data have been scarce.
“Dawn showed up and turned out to be pretty persuasive,” said Mr. Cutler, who sold the company last year for $56 million.
Ms. Ostroff, 60 years old, arrived at Spotify in 2018 after executive positions in TV, film and digital video. Her hire signaled the company’s ambition to become more like a media company and less like a tech startup.
Podcasts, the company says, will improve its margins, eventually helping it turn a consistent profit. Since its $100 million-plus agreement in mid-May with Mr. Rogan, Spotify’s recent flurry of deals has run up the company’s stock as much as 80%.
While the decade-old Spotify has come to dominate music-listening habits around the world, profits have remained elusive. Nearly three-quarters of its revenue goes out the door in the form of royalties to record labels, music publishers and other rights holders.
Spotify is now the second-largest platform for podcasts, behind Apple Inc.
It is not the first time Ms. Ostroff has helped a company tackle a new medium.
As programming head at Lifetime she led the company to become the No. 1 cable network in prime time two decades ago. At the CW she attracted young audiences with shows like “Gossip Girl,” making it available on iTunes before it aired on TV, and to stream online after — selling ads at the same rate, relative to audience size, as on air — to get ahead of the online piracy that was then rampant. More recently at Condé Nast, she coaxed powerful and territorial magazine editors to embrace digital video just as the format was taking off.
In her current role, Ms. Ostroff has pushed podcasters to innovate in various ways, such as urging Parcast’s Mr. Cutler to produce a daily, narrative true-crime podcast — a previously unheard-of tempo for the genre, which tends to be costly and requires a large production team. A crime junkie herself, Ms. Ostroff said she is now an avid listener of Parcast’s “Today in True Crime.”
The daughter of a concert promoter who worked with Frank Sinatra, Ms. Ostroff spent some of her teenage years answering request lines for a Top 40 radio station. She became a protégée of top CBS executive Les Moonves, who in 2002 tapped her to become president of entertainment at UPN, the fledgling television arm of Paramount Studios. There she helped turn around the network by drawing in African-American and Hispanic audiences and developing shows like the teen detective drama “Veronica Mars,” “WWE SmackDown” and “America’s Next Top Model.”
“Top Model” was early to the trend of reality-show competitions. Creator and host Tyra Banks said, “It took foresight to be able to see the potential.”
Ms. Ostroff’s creative feedback about the show — including a note about amping up the “after” photos in makeover episodes — made big differences. “Dawn understood the ground we were breaking,” Ms. Banks said.
In 2011 Ms. Ostroff jumped to another startup-like outfit inside a media giant, co-founding Condé Nast Entertainment, a studio and distribution network for film, TV and digital-video projects based on the magazine giant’s brands including Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ and Wired. It was no easy task, said Bryan Lourd, partner at Creative Artists Agency, which then represented Condé Nast Entertainment.
“Established media companies like that are holding on to the past, and she was screaming in the halls about the future,” he said.
Ms. Ostroff has been instrumental in landing top talent, from Mr. Rogan to Ms. Kardashian to Barack and Michelle Obama. The executive traveled to Washington, D.C., to woo the former president and first lady.
The Obamas were sold on Spotify’s global reach, including its free version. “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” which made its debut last month, has had the biggest podcast launch in Spotify’s history. It is No. 1 on the platform globally and has millions of listeners.
While podcasts are a new format for Ms. Ostroff, she said she is following the same instinct she did in other media: “My natural inclination is to follow the younger generation,” which includes her four children, aged 17 to 30.
She is sometimes ahead of them. They didn’t understand why she left the CW for Condé Nast; a year later they were watching short digital videos her team had made. With the move to Spotify, Ms. Ostroff said, they weren’t sure about podcasting; now they are avid listeners.
While many entertainment executives tend to obsess over product, Ms. Ostroff understands the audience, said Dana Walden, chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment.
“If you focus on a specific audience and program for them successfully, inevitably what you end up with is a broader piece of entertainment,” she said, pointing to Spotify’s mostly young-adult listeners. “If you do it really well anyone can listen to those podcasts. They become part of the zeitgeist.”
Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a content partnership with Spotify’s Gimlet unit.
Ms. Ostroff last year added advertising business officer to her title — a relatively small part of Spotify’s revenue but one that aligns with podcasts.
Early this year Spotify introduced a new digital tool that for the first time lets advertisers know how many and what type of listeners heard a given ad in a podcast. Omnicom Media Group said it plans to spend $20 million on advertising in podcasts distributed by Spotify.
Throughout her career, Ms. Ostroff said, she has consistently sought to pursue new ways of telling stories and reaching audiences. “I always have been interested in going to what’s next,” she said, “because I consider myself to be a builder.”
Joe Flint contributed to this article.
Write to Anne Steele at Anne.Steele@wsj.com