In an hour-long conversation with Jon Cohen, BA’03, the Chicago resident breaks into a wide smile more than once as he advocates for a medium he’s long adored.
“One of my favorite things about podcasts is that you can do so many other things while you listen, unlike watching a TV show or a movie. I can do laundry, other housework, anything. I can get so many things accomplished while I’m still being entertained. It’s phenomenal.”
Cohen’s enthusiasm is understandable. He’s been up to his ears in the podcast space since 2013, and now he shares his specialized knowledge of digital audio storytelling at streaming giant Spotify, where he serves as the company’s associate director of content partnerships.
Cohen helps top-tier podcast creators to better market and improve the content they’re bringing to the platform.
“Whether it’s assisting with promotion, creative consulting, finding guests, cross promotion, informing them about a new technology or product of ours, we want to foster an in-depth relationship with these creators,” he says.
Cohen was working at podcast studio Parcast when Spotify acquired it in 2019, folding in some of the biggest names in the podcast business. He’s especially proud of helping sign Brené Brown’s hugely popular podcast, Unlocking Us, Ashley Flowers’s Supernatural, and Crime Countdown, a new podcast from Alaina Urquhart and Ash Kelley, the hosts of Morbid, to the Spotify network.
He views podcasts as a “more intimate medium” than film or television, noting how “when someone’s in your ears, you feel like you’re forming more of a personal relationship with the host.”
Cohen is part of an industry that is poised to grow exponentially in the coming years. The Interactive Advertising Bureau projects that U.S. podcast revenue will skyrocket to $4.2 billion in 2024, up from a projected $3 billion in 2023 and $708 million in 2019. Further, a 2023 report from Edison Research found that 42% of Americans have listened to a podcast in the last month, an all-time high and up from 38% in 2022.
Spotify is one of the top podcast networks, having spent more than $1 billion to acquire studios, exclusives, and advertising tech.
Cohen’s route to Spotify, however, wasn’t a path he originally sought. Living in the Chicago suburbs during high school, he was enamored with the entertainment industry, watching Saturday Night Live regularly—even pretending to be Wayne from Wayne’s World in a sketch for class.
“I’ve always been a dreamer. I’ve always had big aspirations,” he says, adding that moving to Los Angeles eventually was a front-burner goal.
But first came college. He enrolled at IU Bloomington for two key reasons: as a sports fan, he knew of Bobby Knight’s larger-than-life reputation and was attracted by the school’s basketball program—as a spectator, not a player. And he heard great things about the Department of Telecommunications (now a part of the IU Media School), from which he graduated in 2003.
He recalls Susan Kelly, PhD’03, a senior lecturer at the Media School, being particularly influential.
“She had a free-spirit attitude, which I think was helpful, and she let me be creative,” he says, noting how she allowed him to write a spec script for Malcolm in the Middle. And during his senior year, he took a telecom production class where he helped create a late-night talk show parody that won a departmental award. That kind of writing came easily for Cohen.
“All the projects I was doing in my program had a profound effect on me and helped formulate my creative storytelling brain, giving me confidence for my creative future,” he adds.
After moving to L.A. in 2009, Cohen wrote a couple of web shows, Howard Gets an Interview and Howard’s Hot Roommate, about a hapless unemployed guy, which aired on the comedy streaming platform Funny Or Die. A TV option was considered but never materialized.
A few years later, he got married and began to look for serious employment—landing roles at podcast networks, where he assisted in securing ads and working with talent such as comedian Marc Maron, sports personality Bill Simmons, and podcaster extraordinaire Adam Carolla.
Cohen then moved on to work in podcast ad operations for Midroll, which has since been acquired by SiriusXM. In 2017, he left Midroll to join podcast network Wondery as director of development, where he proudly signed the true-crime podcast Generation Why and This is Actually Happening.
After 18 months at Wondery, Cohen snagged a talent and development lead role at Parcast, a podcast studio that was quickly becoming attractive to both creators and advertisers. As luck would have it, a year after he joined Parcast, Spotify bought the studio and merged Parcast into their larger podcast operations. What Cohen is focused on now is luring third-party audio storytellers into Spotify, as opposed to funding original podcasts.
It didn’t take long for Cohen to move back to Chicago, thanks to his ability to work remotely. Being able to tackle his daily duties from Chicago, as opposed to Spotify’s main headquarters in Sweden, was crucial to Cohen, his wife, Robyn, and his two sons, George and Arthur.
As for what’s next, Cohen still has some ideas that go back to his days of being a Hollywood TV writer.
“What I always thought might be interesting is doing a Larry Sanders Show kind of [show] that takes place in a podcast studio and sharing all the funny things that happen behind the scenes.”
The IU alum may be onto something. After all, if there’s anyone who knows the inner workings—and dramatic and comedic trappings—of the podcast industry, it’s Jon Cohen.
A profile of Jon Cohen was published in the Fall 2023 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine. View current and past issues of the IUAM.
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