Is the Podcast “Live Read” an Actual Evil or Just a Necessary Evil?

Originally written for Fusion Lightworks' "Native Insights from the Team" series.

Podcasts have exploded in popularity in recent years, and this has lead to an increased focus on how advertisers and brands fit into the medium.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s break podcast advertising down into two categories: an “interstitial ad,” where the ad is read by a non-host, and a “live read,” where the ad is read by the podcast’s host.

These categories mirror the split between traditional display ads and more fashionable branded content and native ads, where advertiser content is created to mirror the style and format of editorial content. Interstitial podcast ads are often read in a pitchman’s voice, separated from the podcast content, and can be easily skipped. On Apple’s podcast app, which accounts for 82% of all smartphone podcast listening according to Clammr, listeners can easily skip ahead and avoid bothersome ads with the help of a 15-second fast-forward button. Live reads, producers and advertisers hope, can be smooth enough to keep listeners away from the 15-second fast-forward button and engaging enough to drive entertainment for the audience and value for advertisers.

Often, live reads take brand integration one step further by creating custom segments and narrative features about an advertiser. Before their legal struggles, daily fantasy sites Draft Kings and Fan Duel made headlines this fall by over-saturating the media world with advertisements, including heavily integrated podcast ads. On ESPN’s The Dan Patrick Show podcast, Patrick does a live read promoting Fan Duel, which segues into a segment about a Fan Duel game where listeners play against him and the Dan Patrick Show staff.

Live reads and associated integrations are far more engaging than interstitial ads, but they can also put producers and talent in difficult situations. Draft Kings and Fan Duel’s legal difficulties have been hot news lately, but Dan Patrick reporting on Fan Duel legal proceedings after a Fan Duel live read, or even during the same episode, feels disingenuous at best.

On the other side of the spectrum, Draft Kings frequently ran interstitial ads on Deadspin’s Deadcast throughout the fall. Deadspin, well-known for its aggressive reporting and candid takes on sports and sports media, did not shy away from reporting on Draft Kings, or reflecting on its position as both an advertising partner and a critic. Columnist and Deadcast host Drew Magary went as far to write a blog titled “I Tried Daily Fantasy Sports and It is Evil,” which including the line, “And so I have to state here, explicitly, that I have no control over ad buys on that podcast, and I am free to say F*CK DRAFTKINGS all I like.”

The easy link comparing these two examples would be to say that all live reads are evil – since they must inhibit editorial independence and limit the opportunity to frankly report on situations that an advertiser may be involved with. However, much like in the world of native advertising, effective brand integrations come in shades of grey. The worst integrations invite mockery, while the best win awards. Best practices for native advertising have become clearer as the tactic becomes more common, but podcast advertising is still in its infancy. Roughly produced, heavily promotional branded content often leads to more effective, and more clearly labeled examples over time, and the same is true in the podcast world.

The podcast shop Gimlet Media perhaps exemplifies this best. On a recent episodes of its meta-referential show StartUp, Gimlet co-founder Alex Blumberg has examined his company’s advertising strategy and the need to balance engaging live reads and brand integrations with the detached perspective of objective journalism. Their solution – a narratively driven piece of advertising that is reported like a story and offset by background music that indicates a shift to an ad block. This format is still a live read, albeit one that strictly minds the editorial/advertising divide.

It seems that the live read is here to stay. The nonprofit Public Radio Exchange reported that sponsorship revenue, most coming from podcasts, grew 9x form 2013 to 2015. The debate shouldn’t be the format of podcast ads, but rather, who can do it better?

TL;DR? Live reads are a necessary evil.