Forgive the title — it was either that or another recycled version of the Buggles headline everyone dreads.
But every year, around this time, I do some form of “audit” of my year in podcasting. A look back on the year that’s been — its successes and its challenges — and a look ahead to the coming year. And this year, as I began to think about what I’d write, I realised that it would be an obituary.
The first thing I want to say, after the sensationalising headline, and especially for my corporate and editorial clients in the world of podcasting, is that this is not a bad thing. For a long time I’ve felt that podcasting has been stagnant, content to run off ageing technology and unwilling to innovate its way into new demographics. A podcast in 2022 looks and sounds almost indistinguishable from a podcast in 2004 — and in every year of the medium’s existence, it’s been described as “the next big thing”. At what point do you have to just call it, and say that rather than being a “big thing” in waiting, it’s just a run-of-the-mill “medium thing”.
But first, in order to understand what/who I’m obituarising here, we need first to do what bad wedding speeches do, and start with a definition. Google’s default definition is pretty good (and surprisingly broad): “a digital audio file made available on the internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device… new instalments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.” So from that we can read the essential components as: 1) digital, 2) audio, 3) downloading, and 4) subscribers. Other definitions will be more prescriptive: some will say that because “podcast” is a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast” it should always use that original distribution mechanic, i.e. RSS feeds.
What’s more important than any definition, is the degree of intentionality. Was the product designed as a piece of downloadable audio-on-demand? If so, it’s probably a podcast. And I’ve spent the last several years (up to and including today) making things that are recognisably podcasts. Digital? Check. Audio? Check. Downloadable? Check. Subscribable? Check. Even where there is some slight wavering over a check-mark (I make a few shows that are playable in browser, but not natively downloadable or subscribable) I give them the benefit of the doubt.
In truth, we all know what is a podcast and what isn’t a podcast. And for a long time, people in the industry have been frustrated by the application of the word “podcast” to things that are self-evidently not “podcasts”. Long, rambling to-camera YouTube videos, for example. Or, say, two-hour chunks of Twitch streams. These are things that don’t meet the requirements of the definition, yet are often piggybacking on the brand association of the term.
Anyway, let’s get to the crux of it. Why do I think that podcasting is dead?
Firstly, I am no longer having any conversations with clients that do not involve video in the discussion.
Back in the good ol’ days of 2015, a trend know as the Pivot to Video began, and newsrooms around the world began investing heavily in video journalism. This went, I think it’s fair to say, badly, for places like Mic and Vox — i.e. places that were spending money on trying to produce high quality content. And really, you have to see the success of podcasting over the past 7 years in that light. For my first staff job in journalism, I was hired as the Broadcast Editor of a magazine. The idea was to produce lots of short videos, supplementing and advertising the publication’s content. It took about six months in that role for my boss to realise that it just wasn’t sustainable: we were producing too little content and the stuff we were making was taking up too much time and energy from the, relatively small, team. And so the focus became podcasts, where we could record and edit new content every single day. By the end of my first year in that role, my job had become entirely about making podcasts.
And that’s basically been the marketplace for several years. Video is expensive, time-consuming, and lots of contributors don’t want to be on camera. So audio found its niche and clung on.
But while the Pivot to Video can, I think, legitimately be seen as an editorial failure, it would be wrong to see it as a technological failure. Look at the social media services that have thrived since 2015 — Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok — and they all have one thing in common. The success of video here began in the post-2015 world. In 2016, Instagram increased its video limit (introduced in 2013) from 15-seconds to a minute, and brought IGTV, the Reels predecessor, to users in 2018; Snapchat went, in the course of 2015, from 2bn videos being sent per day, to 6bn; TikTok launched, new to the world, in 2016. And look at Twitter — the subject of much scrutiny right now — acquiring Periscope in January 2015, to compliment its earlier purchase of Vine. So while editorial video was struggling, user-generated video was thriving.
And the conditions that allowed this were simple. Smartphones were improving to the point where the onboard microphones and cameras allowed for what has become the standard broadcast quality of the internet. Every advert for a smartphone now includes the camera specs. The distribution mechanics were no longer a pain in the arse: gone were the days of long render times, desktop uploading, painful time limits. And all these things were just getting better and better, more and more ubiquitous, waiting for the return of editorial content.
It is very hard now to build a podcast marketing campaign that doesn’t involve video.
I’ve had the pleasure, over the past month or two, of working with a TikTok specialist (a bloke with almost a million followers on the platform) to help strategise for how to use TikTok as a marketing tool for podcasts. And the truth is it’s not easy. Like YouTube and Instagram, TikTok wants to promote dynamic content: not just static images of podcast artwork and an undulating waveform. They want either a slideshow of short videos illustrating the overriding audio, or, better still, the speakers to be on-camera. But as a podcast producer who is very focused on the journalism and the quality of the audio, this is a huge faff. Do we record video promos separate from the conversation we’re looking to promote? Or do we start filming the conversations too, just so we can clip for socials?
The rise of remote recordings has certainly facilitated the latter. To record a 2 or 3 person podcast, in the flesh, is still tricky. It requires a multi-camera set-up, plus live, or after-the-fact, editing software, and just a decent amount of resource bandwidth. Yet, every “podcast” studio I’ve visited in London now has video recording integrated as standard. Recording a remote podcast, however, is what we, in Britain, call a piece of piss. Zoom, Zencastr, Riverside, Squadcast, whatever: half of all the softwares that have flourished in the years since the start of the covid-19 pandemic have some sort of native video capture function. And this means that video has gone from being something that you have to plan as an irritating addition, to something that you’d be crazy not to capture from the off.
So the products that are being made in the space are moving towards either being video-first, or having native video integration. Which is not very podcasty.
Let’s talk now about the direction of travel for the world of podcasts — and whether the end destination looks remotely like a “podcast”.
In the last few days, we’ve seen reports that Spotify is scaling back its investment in live audio programmes. This has been read both as a reflection of the company’s lack of confidence in streaming audio, and a possibly re-calibration of its ambitions away from spoken word content. I think both are probably misreads.
Most big tech companies are hurting in the current climate and looking to trim fat, and Spotify is no different. It has made huge investments in original programming over the past five years (and the content, rather than the tech, is what’s receiving the haircut right now) designed to try and migrate users over to the platform as an holistic, all-in-one, service for audio consumption. That was always a time-limited endeavour; it was designed to stick a straw in Apple’s milkshake, not become a milkshake machine in its own right. And so now, as we see every tech company on the planet making huge cuts, it makes sense that the bods at Spotify are, possibly prematurely, wrapping up that project. I don’t think it spells doom for spoken word — and I certainly don’t think they’re abandoning the underlying principles of the Greenroom live streaming app (even if I suspect that, eventually, this product will be wholly subsumed into the main Spotify UX).
Over the past year, I’ve noticed, more and more, that my corporate clients (80% of the work I produce, for those interested, is corporate rather than editorial) want me to work with audio that’s been captured either from Twitter Spaces or LinkedIn Live. These are two live audio streaming apps that have received basically no mainstream attention, but which, I think, have been unmitigated successes. Spaces, for example, is setting the media agenda hugely: just this morning I listened back to a Spaces event with Twitter owner Elon Musk, talking about why he’s banning journalists willy-nilly. This is where the actually town hall is at; where news is being made.
The success of Twitter Spaces and LinkedIn Live as the primary vehicle for audio distribution (assuming that podcasting is the secondary vehicle) makes me think that there is still a huge market space for live audio. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Twitch (the Amazon-owned video streaming service) move into this area. After all, it can already be used for just this. I’m writing this paragraph pretty early in the morning UK time (so not a very instructive period) but currently, as it always is, the “Just Chatting” category on Twitch has the highest number of viewers (171,000 viewers, compared with Valorant, in 2nd, with 77k). Shooting the shit is a viable model for being a Twitch streamer, and that means the stream doesn’t need to be played in your primary browser the whole time — just as Gen Z listen to (without watching) long YouTube videos, by relegating them to tabbed status. You, the user, can turn a video into a podcast, you can’t turn a podcast into a video.
I want, at this point, to throw in a mention for Discord. Discord is an integrated VoIP and instant messaging service that is also seeing huge growth. Discord raised $500m last year at an insane $14.7bn valuation; it has since seen that valuation cut to something closer to the $10bn that Microsoft bid to acquire the platform in 2021. But more interesting to me than the value of the service, is its increasing normalisation. For a long time, Discord was seen as an offshoot of the gaming community, where people were as likely to plan a spree shooting as they were to discuss Halo. But rapidly the functionality — which apps like Clubhouse have tried to pretend that they’re inventing — has made it totally mainstream. Earlier this week, I was at a drinks party with lots of finance bros (people comfortably earning six-figure salaries) who were all members of the same Discord server, where they’d chat, comment and broadcast on the big trading issues of the day. Equally, I’ve noticed that many top podcasts (like, say, The Rest is History, your dad’s favourite show) are using Discord as a way of communicating directly with premium subscribers.
The integration of Discord into the podcasting process is not a million miles away from the efforts that we are all making to codify video into the undertaking. It is indicative of the ways in which podcasting is adapting to the end of advertising as a viable funding model. The push, now, for subscriptions means a demand to integrate more features — and both video and Discord serve that purpose.
But it is also instructive in seeing that the next phase of podcasting must be interactive, a functionality that is anathema to the format’s original conception.
The question of whether a subscription-based show on Apple Podcasts (even if it calls itself a podcast) is a podcast, is, I think, fairly open-ended. It does not satisfy a key requirement of podcasting: to be open. The shows hosted natively on Apple and Spotify may not even use the RSS technology (someone can correct me if I’m wrong) that is the foundation stone of the industry. These are closed communities — but in most other senses the duck quacks like a podcast.
Advertising on podcasts has collapsed (and is still collapsing) and is not a sustainable way to make a podcast, unless you are Wondery (and perhaps not even then). Subscriptions and direct-sales are more intriguing, but remain tricky. For the past 15 years, “podcast” has meant free. So how do you undo that without trashing your brand discoverability? Well, the route most people take is to continue releasing a free version, and then offer something extra to subscribers. Longer or bonus episodes, say, or community features. That way you feel like you’re getting something that the free subscribers aren’t.
But, as many podcasters have noted over the past few years, this community building has values beyond adding a perk for premium subs. Look at how The Rest is Politics (the most milquetoast, Centrist Dad podcast) managed, earlier this week, to sell-out the Albert Hall. That’s all because of community building. There’s an old adage from the music industry, that you put out albums as a way of promoting the stadium tour — but the same is becoming true of podcasting. Events and merchandise are a much more efficient way to make money from podcasting – and they’re also not podcasts. If a podcast exists only as a tease to promote a live event, say, is it still a podcast? If a podcast is just trying to push listeners over to a private forum where they might buy tote bags or donate a fiver, is it still a podcast? If the point of a podcast is no longer to be a podcast, is it still a podcast?
For the time being, the answer is clearly yes. But we are still in the very early days of subscriptions, and more and more of these add-ons will be integrated into the product (apologies for the number of times I’ve used the word “integrated” in this blog). Ultimately, a financially viable audio product in 2023 is not going to be an audio product: it’s going to be a mixed-media, interactive social platform, pegged to a distinctive journalistic brand. That’s a far cry from Marc Maron in his garage (although it’s exactly where Marc Maron, and his garage, have ended up).
We’ve got this far in the piece still looking, moony-eyed, at the question of format, without thinking about the economy.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” was the refrain that political strategist James Carville drummed into Bill Clinton during the 1992 election. With America in recession, everything need to be brought back to that. It’s the economy, stupid. And if we were to look at the death certificate I’m currently printing for the word “podcast” then, under cause of death, it might well read: it’s the economy, stupid.
Podcasting is a technology, but it’s a technology that needs content. And that content is generated, overwhelmingly, by the media. Sure, there are some home brewers, fermenting moonshine under the floorboards, but the reality is that 90%+ of the world’s monetisable podcast content is coming from the media elites. And that’s a world that is suffering massively from current economic conditions, and is going to continue suffering for the foreseeable future. Just take, for example, the news of lay-offs at the Washington Post this week. The Washington Post, one of the world’s great legacy media brands (the paper, after all, of Watergate), is going to lost almost 10% of its staff over the next year, as a cost-cutting measure (and that’s just what they’re willing to disclose in advance). That’s some 250-odd jobs. And who owns the Washington Post? Jeff Bezos, the man who sent Shatner into space, one of the world’s richest men. If a newspaper owned by Bezos is decimating its workforce, who can survive?
And podcasts cannot pull their economic weight. They struggle to generate subscriptions (or, at least, evidence that pathway for an analytics-driven culture) and are still receiving trash CPMs for advertising. Most of the podcasts at newspapers and magazines are loss-leaders. They are sustained so that the newspaper or magazine’s brand can remain competitive with its rivals, rather than as a commercial decision. Increasingly, we’ve seen partnerships that have outsourced the financial risk of podcasting to third parties, in exchange for the leverage of the prestige brand’s reputation. Take, for example, Wondery’s partnership with the LA Times and Bloomberg, or Gimlet’s collaboration with the Wall Street Journal. The fact is (or, let me hedge a bit: my opinion is) that prestige media is struggling to justify funding audio original content, and is thus relying on VC-fuelled, or Big Tech owned, studios. But we’re also seeing huge shareholder reprisals against spendthrift technology firms, and I don’t see how this symbiosis holds.
This is all not to mention the fact that 2023 might well be a difficult year for corporate podcasting, and corporate podcasting funds a lot of the audience-building editorial podcasting. Marketing and advertising budgets are among the first to get slashed in a recession. And the splash that makes (or the absence of a splash) has ripples (or no ripples) through the industry.
Podcasting is at a precarious point in its existence. Champions of the format will point to slightly ludicrous research suggesting that 60%+ of Americans listen to podcasts. But the figure for actual, current listeners is probably closer to 30%. Comparatively, about 90% of people still listen to radio. So whilst podcasting has undoubtedly entered the mainstream, it still has nothing like the penetration of the core media formats: radio (90% cut-through), TV (80%), books (73%), music (90%). What I think this means is that that success is undoable. With television, say, or music, the genie is out the bottle; the toothpaste out the tube. But with just 30% market penetration, that cut-through is reversible, especially given how many non-podcast mediums offer that same podcast experience. If you start watching Lex Fridman videos on YouTube or listening to Twitter Spaces with Dave Ramsey, the content your consuming hasn’t really changed. The content survives, the distribution mechanism changes.
But this is not really anything to worry about.
Whether you’re a content creator or a technologist, the coming months and years will be about going with the flow. And almost all the trends in podcasting that have developed over the past couple of years — and which I think make the original idea of ye olde pod-caste rather antiquated — are weapons in the armoury of a good producer. The increasing focus on integrating video unlocks real potential for dynamic storytelling; the prevalence of live-broadcast as a primary distribution method, adds greater urgency and story-breaking potential.
And there’s still a big place for audio-on-demand. It’s just that, with all the added bells and whistles, I no longer feel that podcast is a hugely useful term. Some things will look more like audiobooks. Some will be paywalled audio serials. Some will be audio versions of videos. And others will utilise on-demand in the same way that Twitch streamers use YouTube, or radio broadcasters use podcasts. But there are two clear, irrefutable trends that the new podcasting will incorporate: video, and interactivity.
I don’t know of any podcast production company that isn’t positioning itself to provide a much wider range of services. If I take, at random, the first three companies that come up when I Google “LONDON PODCAST COMPANY” none of them are really “podcast” companies. The first (which I’ve never heard of, but clearly has good SEO) says its key services are “PR, Social, Content”. The second (which is massive, and owned by Sony) now describes itself as “a content company”. And the third, another vast one, describes its product as “audio, visual and social production”. And perhaps that’s the neatest summation of what the podcast of 2023 and beyond will be: an audio-visual and social product.
So please, heading into 2023, start planning for the afterlife. Because, heaven or hell, it’s up to you what the next era of podcasting looks like.
Follow me on Twitter, if you want, or subscribe to my newsletter. And if you want to have a proper conversation about the future of podcasting (over a coffee or a beer) drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set something up.