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The Rumors of Podcasting’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated...Redux
Welcome to Dispatch #45 of The Audio Insurgent.
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The podcasting industry of 2023 was unimaginable just ten years ago.
Industry advertising revenue was about 2% of what it is today. There was no such thing as a multi-episode narrative podcast. Eight of today’s Top 10 publishers didn’t even exist then (the two exceptions being This American Life and NPR). The 2013 dedicated full-time podcast workforce could probably be counted on a couple hands and fingers. Listener contributions and extensions like live shows, books, merch, and TV/movies deals were almost non-existent. The podcasting audience was so small it wasn’t reliably measurable; now nearly half the adult population listens regularly.
If you told someone ten years ago, including me, what podcasting would look like in 2023, no one would have believed you.
It has been a thrilling ride, and even though we are experiencing some turbulence, that thrill is far from over. Every objective indicator I see shows that audiences still love podcasting, still discover new podcasts to love, and podcasting continues to attract a bigger and broader cross-section of potential audience.
That’s because there is another way that podcasting has grown that often gets overlooked. It has grown in resiliency. Podcasting strength has deep roots and it has the ability to weather storms.
Yet many people, both podcasting’s fans and distractors, have been nervously expecting that someday, soon, the whole thing will fall apart. It’s like thinking of podcasting as a fad, and we are all making the equivalent of slap bracelets or Beanie Babies—that the world is losing interest in what we make and moving on. These people pessimistically look for signs not that the industry is stabilizing and leveling out, but that the whole thing is about to collapse in on itself. Or more specifically, they interpret any negative event, regardless of its size and potency, as a sign that everything is going wrong.
And I keep hearing this worry about podcasting over and over again lately–and the evidence cited is…a bit less than compelling nor convincing.
Today’s dispatch mostly focuses on that negative “sky is falling” hyperbole of this moment by looking back at a Medium post I wrote five years ago, titled “The Rumors of Podcasting’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” (now located in the archive of The Audio Insurgent).
This is such a similar moment to what happened in 2018 that I’ve even borrowed the title and art from that five-year-old post. Because here we are, again, wringing our collective hands, again, and worrying that the podcast adventure is ending.
Spoiler alert: it isn’t.
And when you hear the reasons why people thought podcasting was dying in 2018, you will laugh–or at least chuckle. It’s pretty ridiculous. Just as today’s concerns will prove to be in the long history of podcasting. Our problems today are business model problems, not existential problems–just like in 2018.
When I wrote that piece, five years ago, it was a pretty exciting time in my own life, too. Five years ago this week, I resigned from Audible after a pretty good run there creating Audible Originals. We had been plotting out what became Magnificent Noise over the preceding several months but I obviously needed to resign before I could put anything into place. It was a huge leap for me–leaving a fantastic gig surrounded by incredible people to go out on my own. It was a thrilling and exciting moment for me. Jesse Baker, my current co-founder and business partner (and then-colleague at Audible), was about to have a baby, so our plan was that I would spend a few months finishing my book Make Noise and she would create a new life, then we’d start our new venture. I took the rest of the summer off, pretty much, then started in September to try to finish the book and figure out what Magnificent Noise was supposed to be. That post was the first thing I published as an independent voice.
To be honest, I’m just as surprised as I am delighted that being independent has been this successful for this long. It is such an honor and a privilege to work with so many of the most ambitious companies and talent trying to figure out podcasting and audio today, and to build a company with Jesse, who is one of my best friends. We start every day not knowing where this adventure is taking us. Never a dull moment, for sure.
[BUT FIRST… “NEW” SHOWS] Here are some “new” shows from us that actually aren’t all that new.
I am SO EXCITED to share that today is the re-launch day for Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel. In a moment where our industry is largely in a “pullback” mode, we are doing the opposite. Today is the culmination of two years of planning and putting pieces into place to create “WSWB 3.0” as we’ve called it (“1.0” were the early Audible years and “2.0” were the Gimlet/Spotify years). In version “3.0,” Esther’s show will move from 10 episodes a year, released fairly sporadically, to a year-round weekly “always on” experience in partnership with the stellar folks at Vox and a new subscription service with the equally amazing folks at Apple Podcasts. It surprises people how successful this show has become, given that it always had some serious roadblocks in its way (for example, in all previous iterations, it has always been paywalled or windowed to some degree–which has really held it back). While it might be easy to just oversimplify what we are doing as “a switch to weekly”--the resulting changes in how the show is produced, the type of content we offer, and the relationship with the audience has been a fully transformative experience for all of us (and a hard challenge, too). I could easily fill an entire dispatch just on what we learned, why we made the choices we did, and how it all is working–and I will–but right now we are far too busy and the story would be a lot better once we have some data to check all our assumptions. More to come. In the meantime, enjoy a lot of Grade A Esther. There are several new episodes and a bunch of great bonus content available today.
Another new offering for us that we are really thrilled with is Almost There, produced in partnership with Emerson Collective, hosted by the poet, lawyer, author, playright, and amazing human Dwayne Betts and produced by Jesse, myself, and our long-time colleague Eleanor Kagan. In the show, Dwayne talks to creative problem solvers—architects, doctors, writers, voyagers, organizers, and artists—about their approach to making meaningful social change and, most interestingly, the road blocks they encounter along the way.
The reason I waited a few weeks to talk about this is because of something that makes this show super unique–something I rarely feel in episodic podcasts. Sure, the individual conversations are all very engaging and interesting, but the cumulative effect of listening to multiple episodes catches you off guard. Hearing all these conversations together leaves you with a mixture of feelings. You are amazed by these people (almost none of which you’ve ever heard of before), yet also a tad frustrated that people who, seriously, have ideas that can change the world, encounter such friction that they have to power through. You hear it again and again, in a way that isn’t redundant–but more like looking through a prism from a different angle every time, and thus seeing things differently. A nice byproduct of all these: in the tough world we face today, listening to Almost There leaves you feeling hopeful and optimistic–and inspired and grateful that people like this exist in the world. The series works as a series to move you, unexpectedly. Please take a listen. The first three episodes (there are 20 in the first season) are out now for you to hear.
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: PODCASTING’S DEATH...REDUX] According to Podcast Business Journal, there were 478,777 new podcast episodes posted during the last week of June. That averages out to a rate of roughly 25 million episodes annually.
Under its deal with Spotify, Archewell Audio produced 13 episodes of audio. Compared to the output of the rest of the industry, Archewell represents .0000522163763% of all episodes released last year.
Yet, Archewell Audio somehow represents the health of the entire industry… at least according to some. To them, the breakdown of the Archewell deal with Spotify is a harbinger for podcasting’s doom.
Another sign they see of the coming podcasting apocalypse? The “demise” of Stitcher (an app that represents less than >2% of listening for most podcasts). Read almost any coverage (including by some podcasting beat writers) and they read this as yet another sign that podcasting is in trouble.
But what’s happening with Stitcher isn’t a collapse–it’s a consolidation. Stitcher’s owner, SiriusXM, currently offers three different apps for podcasting listening (the other two being SiriusXM’s flagship app and Pandora). Apps are expensive to build and maintain, and unless there is a clear reason to keep three different apps, why not sunset the smallest one and move that over to your main app? That’s exactly what’s happening.
And… that’s it as far as recent evidence of the podcasting’s pending collapse. Well, besides reductions in advertising revenue, which is driven more by the larger economic conditions, affecting all media, and not by any objective measure that points to any kind of dampening or weakening in listener enthusiasm for podcasting. Execs foolishly assumed that the ad dollars would always grow and flow, until they didn’t. And that has caused a lot of pullbacks, lay-offs, and downsizing. However, that doesn’t mean podcasting is in trouble (but I kinda hope it does mean those over-optimistic execs are in trouble).
These events feel and seem much more impactful than they are because most people, even those working in the industry, still see podcasting as a small, clubby, cottage industry. Sure, we are small compared to TV, movies, and games, but podcasting left the “we are a tiny niche” paradigm behind years ago, which is why a number of us, including me, see bad news as unfortunate, but not existentially disruptive.
Besides concern over jobs, a lot of this anxiety is being driven by press coverage. And allow me to be direct here: a lot of the recent press coverage of podcasting’s “trouble” has been pretty terrible work. I have probably had more press requests in the past three weeks than I have in the past six months. Whenever we speak, a surprising number of the writers come in with a “podcasting seems to be in trouble” POV, not a lot of depth to their thinking, a few Archewell/Stitcher level examples, and they are looking for some quotes to backup their assumptions. They get really confused, even put off, by a response that calls their premise into question. A number of the interviews I gave never made it into the pieces, probably because we spent most of the interview quasi-arguing.
Not everyone writing about podcasting is as good as Ashley Carman, and I’m not expecting them to be. But many writers from traditional news orgs and digital outlets have spent the last several years dealing with slashed budgets, layoff after layoff after layoff, and all while their output and page view expectations continue to rise. A number have seemed a little too eager about podcasting finally getting some comeuppance.
But, hyperbole aside, and as I mentioned, we’ve been here before. Back in 2018, people mistook another group of bumps in the road as signs of badness.
In looking back at that 2018 piece, titled “The Rumors of Podcasting’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” there were three major developments that drove a lot of angst about where podcasting was heading at that moment. They were:
Panopoly (the company that eventually became Megaphone and then eventually was bought by Spotify) laid off its entire (modestly-sized) in-house editorial team to focus on building tech (check out the long list of tweets about this move).
Buzzfeed also laid off its in-house podcast team (resulting in what was described as a “handful” of layoffs).
And Audible laid off a significant number from my former team (in the classiest and most puzzling move of all, dubbed internally as “The Red Wedding,” when I resigned, Audible was very concerned about the optics of me leaving and oddly decided to respond by laying off anyone they considered “loyal” to me, resulting in several dozen layoffs across the US and UK).
To be fair, in 2018, a few pivots and a few dozen layoffs over the course of a month did feel somewhat seismic (and, since commercial podcasting was just starting to bloom, all those employees were pretty much immediately sucked up into other jobs). But in 2023, we’ve seen several times that number laid off in a single week. It's all relative.
But, that’s it.
Back in 2018, I reassured people by saying that:
“In today’s ‘move fast and break things’ digital media culture it isn’t surprising that companies and talent can find themselves off course, and need to back up and change tack. When you move quickly, you have to accept that the risk will increase and you’ll make some decisions that you will later wish you could change. Out of all the companies who have recognized the opportunity in digital audio and podcasting, it isn’t surprising that these pivots are happening. If anything, it would be weird and shocking if everyone made the correct maneuvers every time. It would be depressing if no one was willing to admit some things weren’t working.
When I see the moves away from podcast content creation lately, that’s what I see. I see companies who started off with all good intentions, but ran up against the reality of what it would take to succeed. They may have been foolish, or overly bullish, or simply have only so much time and attention to do a limited number of things well.
Additionally, I think anyone who looks at the podcasting revolution with a clear eye will have to acknowledge that there will be many more such pivots, recalibrations, and course corrections to come. Frankly, I’m betting the next ones will be more seismic than these.”
Admittedly, that was a pretty kind take. Yet I think today in 2023, we are seeing how true that last statement would prove to be.
But let’s swing back to that idea of resiliency. I wrote about that then too:
“Never bet against audio
While digital disruption has certainly affected legacy media companies, including legacy audio companies (read: broadcasters), there is something very important to remember about audio. It’s something that makes it different than any other digital platform.
Audio is historically very resilient.
Radio was the first truly egalitarian mass medium and has seen more disruption than most people realize. Cataclysmic disruption. Yet it persists.
Audio even survived the invention of video.
Many people speculated radio’s days were numbered when television became widely available in the 1940s. Audience — and talent — all rushed to the exciting new medium. But not only did radio survive, it reinvented itself, and, in the process, accidentally invented rock-n-roll, for Pete’s sake. That is pretty badass.
People have been predicting the death of radio for my entire two-plus-decades career in radio. The final nail in the coffin was supposed to be, ironically enough, podcasting. But even when faced with the exciting explosion of podcasting, radio, in its supposed ‘demise,’ still managed to drum up $19 BILLION in revenue last year. That, too, is pretty badass.
So if one thing is clear, when someone tells you that any audio platform is done for, ignore them. They are probably wrong.”
Things have been good in podcasting, mostly uninterrupted, for some time. Growth has happened almost magically, by double-digit percentages, every year. But this year has been different… and it scares people—even though it objectively isn’t all that bad. Let’s be real, podcasting has a problem, a serious one: an overdependence on advertising income. Compared to all the other forms of revenue for podcasting (those being listener-contributed revenue, IP/derivative rights, and institutional support), advertising is the least stable, most directly open to disruption by the larger economy, and pushes down tolerance for risk, innovation, and out-of-the-box thinking. If you are wondering if I have a thing against advertising, well, you haven’t been reading this newsletter very long. 😉
Kidding aside, advertising is actually great. It is great because it can fund a lot of things. But it should never be the sole source of revenue for any show, network, or company. If there is anything I actually do have a “thing against,” it is the myopic view towards advertising and a dismissal of the opportunities in other revenue streams. For any podcast, you can make as much (or more) from other sources than you can from advertising—and they are more consistent and stable than advertising. When all a company’s attention is focused on advertising, you can expect to see similar cycles, similar pivots, similar cutting of healthy tissue, over and over again, for the foreseeable future.
Creators: Please don’t walk away from this being dismissive of advertising’s importance–that is as short-sighted as simply shrugging your shoulders. Even as a creator, you should care because any revenue source affects your ability to do your job (let alone have a job), hire creative collaborators, and do ambitious work. Regardless of your role in your organization, big or small, it is your responsibility to understand advertising’s role in your organization, even one with diversified sources of revenue. You should ask those in your org how they were taken so off guard by the advertising recession across media. Why didn’t they forecast more conservatively? Why didn’t they budget for small or no growth when the general economy has been rumbling and oscillating for more than a year before? Your sales leaders will argue that they can’t be held accountable for the general economy or industry-wide pullbacks, but they can be held accountable for their strategy and planning.
I’m going to close by sharing the close to that 2018 post, just as applicable today as it was then:
“So despite all the news of the past few weeks, nothing much has really changed. People still want to listen to great stuff. As long as that remains the case, podcasting will be fine.
This little dose of reality should reinforce what others have long known: there are no shortcuts.
The best way to achieve goals, to build an audience, and to earn the revenue to make it possible: simply be relentless in making your work as incredible as possible. Nothing beats great stories and conversations. No marketing plan, no network effect, no tricks or tips is ever a better investment than simply trying a bit harder to be a bit better than your last episode.”
[COULD WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE PLEASE?]
Two things that the rest of the world is way ahead of me on…
I’m reading: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
I’m watching: The third season of The Other Two on HBO.
Okay, that’s it for today.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.
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