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Some podcast guest chairs go to high bidders — without telling listeners

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hey, do you remember payola, like when a commercial radio station would play a song without disclosing they were paid to play that song? I mean, that's been illegal for decades now. And newsrooms, likewise, as a practice, do not receive money from sources. So what about podcasts? How far does pay to play go in the current podcast industry? Well, it turns out there is a growing trend where some podcasts are getting paid by people who want to be guests on their shows.

Ashley Carman wrote about this practice. She's a reporter who covers the business of audio media for Bloomberg and joins us now. Welcome.

ASHLEY CARMAN: Hello. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: OK. So, Ashley, it's no secret that there are podcasts out there that do pay guests to make an appearance on their show. But your reporting shows kind of the reverse, that sometimes a guest pays the show to appear on the show. Can you explain how this works generally?

CARMAN: Yeah. So the idea is really that a guest, perhaps, wants access to a podcaster's desired audience. Maybe they want to buy out all the ad spaces. They don't want any other advertisers on the show. So in those cases, at least for certain shows, they might be willing to do that for a certain price. And so the idea is basically that this guest pays that price. It becomes their episode. They're interviewed. They talk about their business. They talk about whatever they want to talk about.

CHANG: And how much money are we usually talking here?

CARMAN: If you really vary. But my reporting found up to $50,000 for one of those appearances.

CHANG: And so far, of the podcasts that you're seeing do accept money from guests for the guests to appear on their shows, what kinds of podcasts seem to be doing this right now?

CARMAN: Through my conversations, I've seen that the practice is particularly happening in the wellness, cryptocurrency and business space. Obviously, in the wellness space, some of the shows I highlight that had paying guests focus on folks who sell supplements and, like, minerals. So obviously, direct response, direct-to-consumer advertisers are pretty popular in the podcast space generally. And so I can imagine if you're selling minerals or supplements online or something like that, maybe you see it as a potentially lucrative opportunity.

CHANG: I mean, this does raise this larger question. What is the regulatory framework around podcasts? Like, how closely does the FTC currently regulate podcasts? Are there other agencies that look at what podcasts are doing and set down rules?

CARMAN: Yeah. As far as the FTC goes, you know, they weren't able to comment on any specific situations for my story, so I honestly have no idea if they've looked into podcasting. And as far as other government agencies, again, I don't think podcasting has really become this focus point, at least to my knowledge. You know, I'm not aware of it. You know, in the actual podcast space, there is the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which focuses on advertising. You know, there are entities that look at standards around different things in podcasting. But this particular practice, I would say, has not been widely discussed or investigated.

CHANG: Interesting. I mean, what might be a relevant difference between the podcast space and, say, the commercial radio space, where it is illegal to pay to be played on a station and not to disclose that payment? Like, why might it be more justifiable for podcasts to do this?

CARMAN: Yeah. I don't know if it's necessarily more justifiable or just hasn't been widely discussed or even known about that this practice happens. And obviously, radio is a much older medium. Payola and musicians, it was an entire radio issue. So I think podcasts are just relatively new and not something that has been widely thought through yet. At the same time, I think we're seeing that, of course, there's lots of journalistic enterprises that like doing podcasting, but, of course, there's also the influencer side of things where you bring a little bit of that spon con hashtag ad behavior into the podcast world. And again, because it hasn't been widely discussed, there's not necessarily these standards to focus on it.

CHANG: Right. That is Ashley Carman from Bloomberg. Thank you very much for joining us.

CARMAN: Yeah, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.