Can Vurbl Create the Youtube of Audio?
Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior reporter, covering venture capital. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks. Follow him on Twitter.
In the middle of 2005, Apple added a little-noticed feature to its iTunes Music Store – podcasts. A decade and a half later, the form is mainstream, with 144 million Americans having listened to at least one, ranging from The Joe Rogan Experience to Serial. But little about the technology or podcasting platforms has changed in the intervening years.
"The podcast is very archaic," said Audra Gold, founder and CEO of Vurbl, a Los Angeles startup that is launching a new platform Wednesday with an audacious goal of being the Youtube of audio. "It's astounding how underserved audio is."
Vurbl wants to fill the gap by providing a curated, one-stop-shop of the best audio on the internet, which can include podcasts but also goes well beyond that. For instance, Vurbl found people were frequently searching for religious sermons and bible readings but Google and Youtube often did not return good results.
"Millions of people are looking for it," Gold said. "So we started a Vurbl bible station. We have someone whose job it is to curate that content. We are just queuing up one great thing after another on a religious theme."
Other content on Vurbl's 40-plus categories include guided meditation, political speeches, courtroom arguments, old time radio shows, comedy sets and earnings calls. In all, the platform will offer more than 20 million pieces of curated audio at launch.
"All that matters is we are feeding people information on topics they care about," said Gold, who previously founded Product N, a product management consulting and recruitment firm.
Once people start listening to Vurbl, they will also be served up advertising that probably will not sound very different to them but in fact represents a significant step forward for how ads are usually consumed on podcasts.
Brands will be able to purchase real-time programmatic audio advertising to target specific categories and demographics just like they would with Google search. Unlike most audio platforms, Vurbl knows when someone listens to their ad, which Gold says has been a big sticking point for brands to invest more ad dollars in audio.
Spending on podcast advertising next year is forecast to grow 45% to $1.13 billion in the U.S., according to eMarketer. YouTube alone brought in $5 billion in advertising revenue in just the third quarter of this year.
"Audio is right up with video online and the ad dollars are a fraction," Gold said.
The new platform is being built with the $1.3 million pre-seed round Vurbl closed in September led by AlphaEdison with participation from Halogen Ventures and Ten13.
That's a much cheaper investment than companies who have created their own content. Wondery is reportedly considering a sale that could value the company as high as $400 million. Spotify paid around $200 million to buy Gimlet last year. Luminary raised more than $160 million to fund a subscription model but has struggled to attract subscribers.
For now, Vurbl will only be available through web browsers but the company is working on an iOS version it hopes will be ready by next month and an Android version to roll out early next year.
Another key Vurbl feature is the ability for listeners or Vurbl curators to easily splice up audio to share it on social media or post highlights on the platform. Gold thinks this will be popular because the best parts of podcasts often get buried inside 90 minute episodes listeners don't have the time to wade through.
"We're finding the good parts of podcasts and clipping them into playlists," Gold said.
Will creators mind having their work spliced and diced? Gold says they won't, because the clips will only help promote their shows. It is a similar argument Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post make when they aggregate a New York Times story.
"They still own that content and we only link back to them," Gold said. "We think creators are going to love having their content snipped up."
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