If there was any remaining doubt that Spotify (SPOT) is extremely serious about podcasts, last week the Swedish streaming company that already spent more than half a billion dollars in the past two years to acquire Gimlet Media, Anchor, Parcast, and The Ringer added an exclusive deal with Joe Rogan reportedly worth $100 million. Rogan’s entire library of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” one of the top podcasts in America, will become exclusive to Spotify, which has 286 million users, before the end of 2020, along with all new episodes, plus the videos of his podcasts.

Rogan, in his third or fourth career act (TV actor on shows like “News Radio”; host of the competition show “Fear Factor”; UFC commentator), has become a mega-influencer and newsmaker. (Recall when Elon Musk smoked weed on Rogan’s podcast in 2018.)

Meanwhile, Apple (AAPL) is beefing up its podcast plan, seeking to acquire podcast spinoffs of Apple TV+ shows and podcasts that could become Apple TV+ shows, according to Bloomberg. And of course Amazon (AMZN) wants to be in the mix: Amazon-owned Audible is on the prowl to buy podcasts, and is offering more money to acquire them than everyone else except for Spotify.

So what are all these tech giants telling us about a business that somehow feels both still nascent and already overcrowded?

According to the Edison Research’s 2020 Infinite Dial report, 37% of the U.S. population now listens to a podcast at least once a month, or 104 million people. That’s a large number, though not enormous, and the number of weekly podcast listeners is far lower: 68 million. And although the biggest podcasts have laundry lists of brand sponsors (Rogan’s include 23andme, Blue Apron, Square’s Cash App, Casper, Dollar Shave Club, Postmates and Quibi) the industry as a whole still generates less than $1 billion in ad sales per year.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – MAY 09: Announcer Joe Rogan reacts during UFC 249 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 09, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

But look at the growth rate. The number of monthly podcast listeners jumped 16% in the last year. And the number has more than doubled since 2015. Meanwhile, the weekly listeners are extremely engaged: the average weekly listener listens to six podcasts per week. The demographics are appealing to advertisers too: half of monthly podcast listeners are between ages 12 and 34.

‘The best content rises to the top’

Edison’s report also notes that 169 million Americans listen to some form of “online audio” each week, a much larger number than the weekly or monthly podcast listeners, and podcast bulls are banking that many of those “online audio” listeners (think music streaming, music videos on YouTube, or streaming radio) will become podcast listeners.

Michael Bosstick, CEO of the podcast network Dear Media, says podcasting isn’t overcrowded yet. “That’s been said about every content medium, it’s been said about blogs, it’s been said about social creators,” Bosstick told Yahoo Finance Live. “I think the best content rises to the top. And I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of people taking this medium very seriously. For how old the medium is, to see the attention it’s finally getting, I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of people jumping in.”

Digital media companies have understood podcasts for a few years, and now the tech giants are getting in late, but bringing big dollars to buy instant footholds.

Barstool Sports started as a Boston sports blog in 2003, but has become known for its podcasts, which now make up well over a third of Barstool’s revenue. The company has more than 30 podcasts and is a top 10 U.S. podcast publisher, with more monthly podcast listeners than ESPN. A handful of its newest podcasts are hosted by women, like “Chicks in the Office” and “Schnitt Talk,” and one of them, “Call Her Daddy,” is currently the No. 1 podcast in the U.S., a major shift for a company once derided as a dude blog.

Are podcast personalities bigger than their platforms?

But there’s recent corporate intrigue about “Call Her Daddy,” and that saga, alongside Rogan’s Spotify deal, speaks volumes about the effects of the podcast boom.

As the New York Times detailed, the mega success of “Call Her Daddy” caused a rift between cohosts Alexandra Cooper and Sofia Franklyn over their existing contract with Barstool Sports. Franklyn, reportedly on advice from her HBO Sports executive boyfriend, became convinced the two deserve more money. Barstool founder Dave Portnoy says he offered the two a new contract with $500,000 in salary and other bonuses and incentives. (It says a lot that Barstool was prepared to pay $1 million to keep the two together.) In a new video, Cooper says she was thrilled with the new offer, but Franklyn was not. Now it appears the podcast will continue without Franklyn.

The question is whether popular podcast personalities are bigger than their media platforms. If you look at the past week’s top 10 U.S. podcasts (“Call Her Daddy” is No. 1 and “The Joe Rogan Experience” is No. 2), six come from media companies, including two from NBC News (No. 8 and No. 9) and one from the New York Times (No. 3). The No. 7 podcast is “Office Ladies,” cohosted by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, who are famous from television, not podcasts. No. 10 is “The Ben Shapiro Show,” which comes from The Daily Wire, where Shapiro is editor in chief. Could Shapiro leave The Daily Wire and take his podcast elsewhere? Almost certainly.

How many popular podcast hosts could leave their parent brand and succeed elsewhere? Sofia Franklyn is about to find out.

Joe Rogan did not previously work for one media company: he posted his podcast everywhere but Spotify, and posted videos of the interviews on YouTube. (His new deal is a huge loss for YouTube; as The Verge writes, Rogan “helped create a podcast culture” on that platform.) Now he’ll be exclusive to Spotify, and his devoted listeners are likely to follow him there; they would likely go anywhere to hear him.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Read more:

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