Welcome to the Future
If you are thinking that podcasting is experiencing a momentary speed bump with some temporary retrenching, think again. But you'll be fine.
Welcome to Dispatch #35 of The Audio Insurgent. There are more than 150 new subscribers since the last dispatch–glad you are here.
This dispatch is a loosely-connected potpourri of a few things that have been rolling around in my head about the state of podcasting, as well as thoughts going into 2023 about public radio and local news…and local news on public radio. Today’s items theme together around change, getting through difficult times, and (as I often preach) the incredible power of optimism, intention, and focus.
This issue of The Audio Insurgent was very difficult to write. I was originally planning to send this out right at the new year–but I wanted to take a few more weeks to really let things gel in my head related to what I’m seeing happen in podcasting.
It isn’t that podcasting is in a bad place, or even heading into a bad place, but the recent shake-up in the broader economy has caused a profound correction in podcasting–and not just economic. But everything will be okay.
But before all that heady crap, something fun for some.
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: WANNA GET TOGETHER?]
If you live in the vicinity of New York City or London (which are the two largest markets for subscribers to this newsletter), I’m thinking about some opportunities to meet in-person with you, subscribers. At this point, I just want to gauge interest. If there are enough people interested, I’ll send out more details later.
For those in the London area…
Would you be interested in attending a meet up with Eric at a TBD pub in Central London on the late afternoon of Friday, March 10th?
For those in the New York City area…
We are considering hosting a monthly salon series at the Magnificent Noise office in midtown Manhattan (one block from Penn Station) starting this spring where we invite podcast creators at the top of their game to come share some tape and talk about their work. In thinking of who to invite as audience, we’re curious if those outside our staff and immediate network are interested in attending.
[TODAY’S NEXT THING: THE FUTURE OF PODCASTING IS HERE…THE CHANGE IS REAL…AND RELAX]
Let me start off by saying something important–and also revealing my bias on this subject. Everything good that has happened in my life came from moments when I stopped listening to what other people told me, embraced my optimistic and tenacious belief in what was possible, and fought like hell to make it real. Personal life and professional life. Everything.
This week in the third episode of The Last of Us (spoiler warning: link is to a recap), we saw a truth: even in the worst of circumstances, there is the possibility of new hope and joy. This isn’t about being Pollyannaish or baselessly optimistic, it is about understanding that even tough moments present opportunity. That’s a long way of saying that I think podcasting, innovation in podcasting, and the business of podcasting are going to be fine. In fact, way more than fine. But that doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed.
Now, thankfully, on the macro, things in podcasting really aren’t that bad (and we’ll get to why in a moment). Yet after a few years of astonishment at the meteoric growth of podcasting as a media platform–well, the media coverage on podcasting lately hasn’t been quite as awe-inducing. Ashley Carman and Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg wrote about the “market correction” in podcasting. Nick Quah has warned that 2023 may be rocky for some. Lay-offs and downsizing are happening at multiple companies. Even the “Haves” are feeling the pinch, as acquisitions and megadeals have slowed down to a dribble. And all this on top of the perennial problems podcasters large and small are dealing with regarding connecting to audiences and finding resources to make work.
I don’t need to regurgitate the points in those terrific articles here–just go read them. This situation shouldn’t surprise any of you, as almost every of the 35 previous dispatches of this newsletter have directly or indirectly forecast this day is coming. And it is here.
But is it temporary? No, I’m afraid it isn’t. Podcasting is now acting like a mature media platform, subject to the laws of economics and physics, as well as the realities of audience taste, engagement, and return on investment that governs other media platforms. As I heard twice the other day during two different conversations with industry people, “The dumb money days are over.” Interpret that as you wish–it applies in a few different ways, all of them true.
“Podcasting just isn’t as much fun lately,” someone else recently told me. However, this is where I draw the line. I don’t accept that. There are still a lot of great things happening in podcasting, including a lot of opportunity and potential for growth–it is just now going to be better (but not completely) grounded in reality. And let’s be frank, a lot of this retrenchment is happening at the big company level. For those large companies, they have clearly exited the evolutionary stage and are in a temporary devolutionary stage: not moving forward, but retrenching and retreating before continuing forward.
So why do I think this isn’t horrible and will work itself out fairly quickly? Because listeners apparently haven’t gotten the message yet that podcasting is experiencing growing pains. Listening is still going up. I’d be happy, considering the economic conditions, if listening had flatlined. But it hasn’t, it is up 20% over the year before. The audience is still youthful, vibrant, engaged, enjoying a lot of podcasts…and growing.
I have always said, and advised others, that audience is the most important factor—it's all that matters. If you have an audience, and that audience is engaged and growing, then any revenue or growth pains aren’t a problem of the form (podcasting), it is with the business we have built around it. It would be an existential crisis if listeners stopped giving a shit about podcasting and moved on to something else, but that’s far from the case. This is a moment where the business of podcasting is what needs fixed, but the basic DNA is healthy and will thrive.
So, what do we do now?
I feel like a broken record here, but the focus should be on distinction and (for projects that already exist) audience building. You may not control the rate of inflation or unemployment numbers, but you are totally in charge and capable of changing your relationship to your audience, and using that to build more audience. Regarding distinction, how can you make your work different from anything else? Even in a world of 3 million podcasts, or 5 million podcasts, or whatever, there is still space to create something that no one else can or has the ability to do. You still have the ability to connect with listeners in new ways. Even with very few resources. Even in an industry “recalibration.”
Don't focus your thoughts and energy on the “bust”--now is the time to get ready for the next “boom.” When it happens, what ideas will you have at the ready?
And remember, it is all about what you can do that’s distinct that will delight and surprise the audience. That is how you win.
People always confuse distinction with doing something different than others. That’s partially true. But an impactful expression of distinction is to do what others do, but better.
I recently read a great book, entitled It's Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO by Felix Gillette and John Koblin (I highly recommend it). The book shows how HBO’s brand has meant so many things over the years–and their original content creation efforts have reflected those many eras and been all over the place at various stages of their history (for example, HBO’s first original series productions were so cheaply made they didn’t have budgets for sets and props). The point is that the HBO we know–a home for high quality television–took a long time to emerge (the whole evolution is fascinating–but read it for yourself). In a later chapter, David Simon, creator Treme and The Wire, wrote a letter to rally some executives to keep their eye on the idea of distinction. At the time, HBO was fighting a lot of battles with the rising number of cable and premium channels, each trying to get into the “good TV” space. “You will not be stealing market share from the networks only by venturing into worlds where they can’t,” Simon wrote. “You will be stealing it by taking their worlds and transforming them with honesty and wit and a darker, cynical, and more piercing viewpoint than they would undertake.”
If asked, he’d probably give you the same advice about where to put your creative energy in podcasting, too.
[TODAY’S FIRST PREDICTION THING: NIEMAN LAB PREDICTION FOR 2023]
Sorry, this is a bit dated now, but like I said, I sat on this dispatch for a few weeks. The day after the previous dispatch of The Audio Insurgent, my Nieman Lab Prediction for Journalism for 2023 dropped. Three things were very clear to me about this year’s crop of predictions: first, not many people were talking about podcasting and audio (as compared to previous years), far fewer audio people were included among those offering predictions, and the predictions are, on the whole, pretty grim (you think podcasting has problems…).
This year was a departure for me, as well, as my prediction wasn’t about podcasting, or even audio, but about local journalism. As many inspiring folks are jumping in to address the collapse of local journalism, it’s a subject that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately…especially as I see many struggling to figure out how audio fits into local news efforts.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like making predictions, and turn down almost every request I get to do so. But I have always found the Nieman Lab predictions to be some of the most interesting and thought-provoking reads, so I’m flattered and excited to participate every year. And this year was my SEVENTH year doing it.
And it is quite a collection of solid calls, if I can say so. If these sound familiar, it’s because I shared links to a number of them in Dispatch #31. Last year, I wrote about large legacy media companies abandoning their ill-rendered podcast strategies. For 2021, I wrote about podcast acquisitions ending and risk tolerance going down. For 2020, I wrote about the coming dearth of hit shows in podcasting, a topic that was recently examined again by Nick Quah for Vulture. For 2019, I wrote about the emergence of cross-promotion to build audience. For 2018, I wrote about the emerging new styles of podcasts. And in 2017, my prediction concerned the emerging stratification between haves and have nots in podcasting.
So not only did all those come true, but all of them rang true in 2022, arguably several in the last few months.
But speaking about local news…
[TODAY’S OTHER PREDICTION-LIKE THING: PUBLIC RADIO AND LOCAL NEWS]
I’ve written before about the change public radio in the United States is undertaking–it is either the beginning of an Era of Transformation or an Era of Decline (and I’m hoping for Transformation–and so are a lot of others). I wrote a series of columns in Current that ended last year on the subject too and have helped a few stations and station boards on strategic planning around these ideas.
One subject that has come up a lot when talking with friends, stations, and former colleagues in public radio is “local news.” For the past two decades, public radio stations have increasingly embraced “local news” as a core component of the current and future service.
But for all that conversation, there is very little clarity about what “local news” really means.
I’ve kept kinda quiet on this. It has always bothered me as a strategy for public radio and it wasn’t until conversations over the last year or so that I began to understand why: it isn’t a specific enough idea.
Journalists often think the answer to every problem facing journalism is to just create more journalism. There isn’t enough. It isn’t in the right places or focused on the right communities. The answer is always saturation: more, more, and more.
I’m not sure I believe that–and that’s where public radio comes in. Many public radio stations are measuring their service in volume–their potential for impact is measured by the size of their newsroom. More is better. More means more. Except when you talk to public radio listeners, they often aren’t asking for “more.” They are asking for “more relevant.” They are asking for “more surprise.” That’s very different from a simple “more” measured in volume. And on the occasions when listeners do mention “more”--they often suggest that other people should listen to more. They don’t want or need “more” themselves.
I believe volume isn’t the answer. And, this may surprise you, but I’m also not convinced “better” or “quality” is the answer either.
I think the answer is in specificity. Don’t be general. Be specific.
Don’t be “local news”--define it. For public radio journalists, it means answering three simple questions:
What stories does your newsroom or program cover?
How does it cover these stories?
Why do you do things this way?
Many think they know the answers to these questions, but when you ask them to answer out loud, you both realize that isn’t the case. And when you bring two or more people from a newsroom or program together and have them answer—the answers are different.
When you do explore these, the answers you come up with should be debatable, disputable and revisable. (More on this towards the bottom of this article.) The answers should favor exactness, not vague generalities like “underserved members of our community.”
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be everything to everyone in your community, either. That’s a sucker’s trap.
I believe that so many local commercial media have failed and disappeared not because their business model collapsed or because of digital disruption or because of hedge funds–they died because of a lack of imagination, including the ability to imagine how to be different and how to be specific.
Don’t worry about covering everything, pick beats to own and do them exceptionally well. And I mean exceptional. You can’t cover everything. And no one has expressed interest in hearing everything. They do want you to surprise them–make them interested in things they didn’t even know they cared about. Enrich stories with characters and stakes and scenes and emotion. Don’t worry about comprehensive–focus on the things you can do better than anyone else and go deeper into them than any one can.
I may write more on this in the future.
[TODAY’S FINAL THING: IS PUBLIC RADIO STILL RELEVANT?]
This fall I participated in an Intelligence Squared US debate at the PRPD conference in New Orleans asking about the relevance of public radio today. I argued it is–and can still be more relevant.
Here is a link to listen to the debate via about 70 different potential platforms.
That’s it for now. Sorry about the silence between dispatches.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
And while this is free, you are also always welcome to buy my book or (even better) buy me a beer.
Make great things. I’ll be listening.