Two decades ago, Pandora launched the Music Genome Project, a.k.a. the backbone of its Internet radio service, and changed music discovery forever. No longer did fans sift through clunky physical or digital record stores to find new artists to love; Pandora’s meticulous recommendation engine served that all up effortlessly to them. Now, the music company — which has been through tough times of late, reorganizing and figuring out a fresh identity after swinging back from the cusp of bankruptcy — wants to do the same for podcasts.
Pandora on Tuesday rolled out a public, invite-only beta of the Podcast Genome Project, which it had been teasing for the better part of the year. Available for now to beta users on iOS and Android, the project uses a mix of algorithms and human curation to custom-surface individual episodes of podcasts to users, going off of some 1,500 attributes including MPAA ratings, timely/evergreen topics, production style and host profile, as well as listener signals like skips and replays. Chief product officer Chris Phillips said in a statement that the Podcast Genome Project will allow people to “easily enjoy all of their audio interests — music, comedy, news, sports or politics — on Pandora,” and that major publishers including Gimlet, NPR, the New York Times and WYNC Studios have signed onboard.
By latest estimates, there are more than 540,000 podcasts in existence right now. But only two-thirds of Americans over the age of 18 say they’re familiar with the term “podcasting,” per Edison Research. To Pandora, that gap between supply and demand poses enormous potential: In this fledgling market, if it builds a recommendation engine that is strong and easy to use, it stands a good chance at being the product in the industry. That’s an opportunity that no longer exists in the overcrowded music-streaming industry, which Pandora was all but edged out of by on-demand players like Spotify and Apple Music. Pandora also sees podcasts as a way to lure over not-yet-digital fans of terrestrial radio.
“It’s easy to stay on FM radio,” Pandora CEO Roger Lynch told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “But if the Podcast Genome Project offers an easier experience, creating the equivalent of a playlist for your morning commute with business headlines already programmed, already in your car, and you don’t have to tell it what to do — that’s how we offer an even easier experience.” This week’s beta launch, which users can request to partake in via Pandora’s website, is the first test of that ease.