This time last year, I wrote a piece which still occasionally haunts me. It was titled “2022: The Year That Podcasting Died” and it was one of those rare blogs that seemed to split readers down the middle. Roughly half responded by feeling seen — they were suffering the rough economic climes of the industry, which, at the time, had been scarcely reported — while the other half accused me of sensationalism, pessimism and trying to flog my newsletter (which you can subscribe to here).
I’m not going to re-litigate the piece, though I want to add a caveat that was not immediately apparent from the title. When I talk about the “death” of podcasting, I was talking about the death of something quite specific: the original ideals of podcasting. Open, RSS-based, community/ad funded, creator driven, audio-only. All those things. I am not saying that people will cease making things they call “podcasts” (obviously, that would be bad for me as someone who runs a podcast company). But I did think that the concept of a podcast, as it had been for over a decade, was ending. The increasing dominance of hard-paywalling and video podcasts both felt anathema to that original manifesto of podcasting.
The piece also talked about the worrying economic climate for the industry, and on that front I think I’ve been both very right and very wrong.
On the very right stuff, first. It didn’t take long into the new year before a lot of much more reputable outfits were reporting a significant downturn in forecasts for podcast companies, and neverousness about the state of the market. Places like Vanity Fair and Bloomberg were even nice enough to quote my piece when talking about this. And that has been the dominant pan-industrial trend over 2023. Job cuts, project cancellations, investors fleeing the scene.
But, on the very wrong, hand, I felt like much of this would be tied to broader economic woes. And here I think that the economies of the US, UK and other English-language countries with mature podcasts markets, have looked surprisingly resilient. Certainly the correction that I expected — marketing and advertising budgets taking a bath over fears of recession — hasn’t really materialised. Advertising spend has continue to grow on podcasting, even as, overall, digital advertising has trended downwards like an out of control skier.
And so we’ve ended up in a strange place, where many of the big industrial news stories of the past couple have months have looked super depressing, even as the granular data on podcasting has looked optimistic. Take, for example, Spotify laying off 1,500 staff members (17% of its workforce) last week, which can, by no-one’s estimation, be considered a sign of good health (but with a 7.5% immediate stock price bounce, expect all the fat that can be trimmed to be trimmed). At the same time that Daniel Ek was playing the Grinch, ad revenue forecasters were talking up a 5.9% growth in global podcast advertising this year. The result is a marketplace where the big players continue to look skittish, but the bedrock remains firm.
The central question that I posed a year ago — is a podcast still a podcast if it doesn’t subscribe to those original traits? — remains an area of concern. The transition to hard-paywalling content (more on that further in this piece) has been rough. Apple and Spotify subscriptions are, I think, under-performing. The subscription economy, generally, has been under increasing pressure: this blog I wrote a couple of months ago, about why the era of subscriptions is heading for trouble, is my most read piece of the year by far. Just as with my fears about podcasting towards the end of 2022, there is a widespread concern that subscription media isn’t healthy for either creators or consumers.
Video podcasts remain a growth area. As I noted in 2022, more and more of my clients have wanted to find integrated video solutions for their podcasting endeavours. All the same, there hasn’t been a particularly coherent rebranding, or curation, for this form of content. It exists, at present, in the wilderness of YouTube, alongside beauty bloggers, video game streamers, football highlights, and clips of baby animals either falling into water or sneezing. The central hub for video podcasting hasn’t quite come into existence yet, which is either a market failing or an opportunity (or just something that is impossible to retrospectively disentangle from the mess that is YouTube).
Clearly podcasting is not dead. I have a podcast; you, probably, have a podcast. And yet, all the same, 2023 has felt like a bad year in the public conception of podcasting (and in the minds of Wall Street investors who might’ve pumped cash into our world). If the cadaver is not actually on the morutary table, there’s certainly the whiff of decay around this corpse. This summer, The Verge wrote about “podcasting’s fallout”, while Vanity Fair speculated that audio was “no longer cool”. In recent weeks, the New York Times has reported about the desecration of some Spotify original shows (if Heavyweight can’t survive in the current climate, what can?) while TechCrunch talks about Spotify taking “a swing and whiffed” on their billion-dollar podcast bet.
So where does that leave us? For a long time, I’ve been a rare bear in a bull market. All the more unusual, I’ve been at the coalface of podcast production. It is definitely in my professional self-interest to act like podcasts are a great investment for companies and media organisations. And yet that’s long felt disingenuous, and, more importantly, unsustainable. Here, below, I want to reflect on a few broad trends which have emerged (or been consolidated) in podcasting in 2023. And then I also want to look at where things are going, and how best we might all be equipped to weather the storm.
The Problem with Advertising
In an ideal world, we would all just run advertising on our podcasts. It is, after all, the way that vast swathes of the media has long been funded. If, on behalf of the Coca-Cola corporation, we can convince the world to buy itself a coke, we will be richly rewarded by our syrupy overlords. But that model has long felt like it’s being squeezed out.
The problem is decentralisation, and, as a consequence, the plurality of choice. Back in the day when there were a handful of terrestrial television and radio stations, real estate was limited for both advertisers and consumers. The advent of cable and premium radio changed that and introduced a new model where you paid, up front, for your content. Now we are so far down the line that broadcasters are competitive with one another over securing advertiser space, when really it ought to be the other way round. The costs of digital advertising are often so low as to make attaining the necessary volume (given that podcast advertising is usually measured in CPMs; costs per thousand listens) impossible. This is endemic across the digital media industry, and shouldn’t be read as a podcast specific problem.
But it does create this weird reality where advertising spend is increasing (up 5.9% year on year, apparently) but is being spread much more thinly. This headline increase also doesn’t account for the raw increase in the amount of advertising: a few years ago, a podcast running digital advertising might have a 20-second sponsor message at the top. Now, that same podcast is likely to have 90 seconds of pre-roll, 2 minutes of mid-roll, and another minute or so of (less lucrative) post-roll. My suspicion (and I’d love the bods at one of the research units to investigate this) is that while the raw spend on podcast advertising is INCREASING, the actual real-term cost per second of advertising is DECREASING.
Why does this matter? Well, firstly, excessive advertising is a huge detriment to the creation of good content. It is also beginning to eat away at one of the best selling points that podcasts used to have: their listener retention. Whereas radio and TV had a problem with passive ad consumption, and the ability to change channel when the sponsor’s messaging began, podcasts used to be able to market themselves as much more proactively engaged with their communications. Skipping the ads, on a podcast, used to be rare; now most players have a +15secs or +30secs button coded into their default interface. Though not specifically acknowledged as such, this is well-known as the SKIP ADS button.
Digital advertising has many confusing metrics of success, but clearly nobody wants to spend money to put their product front and centre on a podcast, only for that messaging to be skipped over. Again, this drives the price of advertising — in CPMs — down, even if the overall spend remains on an upward trajectory. But the biggest problem with advertising’s failure is the alternative it’s created.
We Need to Talk (and Worry) About Subscriptions
I can’t remember the first time I wrote that I felt that the horse had bolted on the prospect of getting people to pay for podcasts, but it was likely around the time that the well-funded VC-cash bonfire Luminary launched. Theirs was an elegant, but implausible, solution to the age old question of extracting financial value from podcasts.
It is often said that the original sin of the internet era was giving it away for free. And that’s something I closely (no pun intended) subscribe to. Spotify is a great example: the way they do business, a fixed-cost unlimited-buffet of the world’s music library, is only so generous, to listeners, because of what Napster did in changing the preconceptions about music purchasing in the early-00s. The reality is that Spotify’s model doesn’t really benefit Spotify’s (long term) investors and certainly doesn’t benefit the music industry at large, but it plays on the basic belief of internet users that they should get everything, all the time, and almost always for free.
When I first graduated into the world of professional journalism, about a decade ago, I was entering into a period where models were changing. And the dominant transition was from an industry reliant on advertising income, to one that was returning to a much more historic idea of direct sales. After all, magazines and newspapers would, even a few decades ago, not have countenanced the idea that, in addition to the print edition, they would be obligated by market forces to give away their content for free on the internet. The move towards paywalling journalism continues apace: here in London, it’s just been announced that the Daily Mail — that last great bastion of raw traffic income generation — is to start gatekeeping its content in the coming weeks. Only the Guardian is left, among UK news institutions, as a free-to-read online resource (and they have a very unusual ownership structure that, perhaps, facilitates such largesse).
That move towards pay-walling has been happening in podcasting too. The most profitable shows tend to run member-only communities, or provide supplemental content, for their loyal, paying audience. In principle, I have no objections to this model. The idea of creating content strong enough that you can introduce hard or soft pay-walling is appealing. More than advertising, which is subject to exogenous pressures not to mention the strange alchemy of agency sales, it feels meritocratic. But it is bad for the consumer, and unrealistic as a long-term prospect. The subscription economy is so insidious, so atomised, but now so ubiquitous, that it is stealthily draining the reserves of discretionary spending generally earmarked for media consumption.
After I wrote my piece on subscriptions (with the baity title “The End of the Subscription Era is Coming”) I watched as it was debated, and largely torn to shreds, by the wise blokes of YCombinator. Their dominant objection — and don’t forget, I hadn’t solicited their opinions — was that I didn’t provide a solution. Yes, it seems like the average person cannot earn a living through subscriptions, whether they’re a podcaster, journalist or pornographer (or all three), but that’s true of lots of parts of the economy. Sure, customers are being asked to spend a lot of disposable income on subscriptions in order to compensate for the decline in traditional media, but so what? They seem to be paying. And most importantly, there’s no obvious alternative. People keep relying on subscriptions as a way of funding independent media.
I do not propose, in that piece, a solution, because I do not immediately see one. It is obviously easier to identify problems than solutions, and the precarious nature of the subscription economy looks, to me, like a problem. It is a problem when the stability of an industry (an old industry, and one whose survival is important to other industries, I might add) is predicated on a mechanism that looks higher problematic. And I do not think it is a simple case of “oh, the subscription economy is a bit screwed, so this FUN NEW SUCCESSFUL ALTERNATIVE will take over”. I think it might be the case that the subscription economy is screwed, and there’s no alternative. Because the decline in traditional media has not, thus far, been a story of successful alternatives being sought and found. It’s been a story of doors closing behind, and few opening ahead.
Is a reliance on subscriptions sustainable? In the short term, and for an elite subsection of the global podcast industry, sure. Subscription reliance — like advertising reliance — is not an equal opportunities destabiliser. Just as the top podcast brands are still inking lucrative ad deals, so too are the shows with the biggest audiences successfully introducing paywalls. The impression that gives is one of successful uptake. But the litmus test is how a podcast with 10,000 listeners per episode is faring in the current market. And that sort of show is being let down by both these models. Advertising CPMs often claim to be around $30, but seem to disintegrate once the pay dispersal comes about (and that, in itself, is less easy than it should be). And pay-walling gives a subscriber conversion of, optimistically, 1%. 1% of 10,000 is quite a lot, but it’s still only 100 people. If they pay you $10 a month (a steep price), that means you have a thousand dollars to play with. There are not many serious podcasts that can be made for a thousand dollars a month.
So, this is a problem. I do not think there is unlimited goodwill or munificence from podcast listeners to sustain a wide selection of the podcast market. You might be willing to pay for a couple of your favourite shows, but it does not engender exploratory or diverse listening. And it also makes it very hard to launch a show without front-of-microphone talent being involved.
The Talent Conundrum
There was a period in the late 00s/early 10s when it looked like cinema was on the cusp of being reinvented. Cinema is a tricky thing to make — movies cost millions of dollars, almost without exception, and tend to involve busloads of expensive equipment. But the prosumer camera revolution — particularly with the introduction of DSLRs that were capable of cinematic high-definition video at a RadioShack price point — looked like it could change the game.
The fact that it didn’t wasn’t due to the gimmicky nature of films like Sean Baker’s Tangerine, which was shot on an iPhone and released theatrically. It wasn’t due to ARRI shareholders rallying round the production of broadcast quality cameras. It was all to do with talent. Because, ultimately, it didn’t matter that you could shoot something vaguely cinematic looking on a DSLR: nobody was programming films theatrically unless they had celebrities involved. And so, in the space of a few years, thousands of low or no budget feature films were made, films that were suddenly of a quality not widely dissimilar to the generation of Sundance films that had come before, but which were condemned to the scrapheap of film history because they didn’t have famous actors in. Look closely, and you’ll find that the indie film ecosystem is far less buoyant or enthusiastic now than it was a decade ago.
It was a salient lesson in the value of celebrity. Interestingly, that same revolution, which failed to provide a challenge to narrative cinema, paved the way for the YouTube revolution, a different but equally transformative alteration to the media landscape. There would be no Logan Paul, no KSI, no Zoella, no *clutches around in brain for another YouTuber* LadBaby(?), were it not for that period, about 15 years ago, when camera and microphone companies began pitching to consumers as well as professionals. But YouTube, as with the movies, ended up stuck in the same quagmire: fame generated more fame, and fame equalled success.
This year I launched a podcast with a several well-known figures from British public life. I’ve worked on shows with well-known people before, and worked for major editorial brands too, but I’ve never been part of a launch that went off so seamlessly. The publicity did itself, the listeners came flocking in. It’s the most successful show I’ve launched in the past five years, easily, even though it’s on a quite specific, and relatively niche, subject. The lesson from this — which didn’t really need learning — is that fame generates interest. The flip-side of that coin is that it is increasingly hard to generate organic publicity for a project that doesn’t have name talent involved.
All of this pushes what’s left of podcasting further from its roots. The dream of podcast, as I often say, was that you could buy a cheap mic, set-up a mini-studio in your attic, and be broadcasting to millions off the back of your own talent. Virality was real, not manufactured. It led a lot of millennials to pursue podcasting as a shortcut (ha!) to success, just as Gen Z pursue YouTubing. Without being melodramatic (which is somewhat unlike me) I believe it is now pretty much impossible to become a viral podcasting star without having experienced previous, non-podcast, success.
The economic climate of podcasting is just far too rigged in favour of talent. Just as the Hollywood system closed ranks against insurgent prosumer technology by protecting the hegemony of celebrity, so too is the podcast industry now more reliant than ever on name recognition. Advertisers only want to do pre-sales (agreements hatched before a show has launched) if they have experience with, and knowledge of, the talent involved. This means that shows with talent have, from the off, a far greater chance of success than their Z-lister counterparts (all other things being equal, of course). Then there’s the question of subscriptions: celebrity breeds a rabid capitalist fanaticism (you need only look at Taylor Swift’s eras tour for that) that is translatable to subscriptions. And so for both of the (presently) dominant funding routes, celebrity pays. (It’s worth also mentioning, on the Swift point, that TIME’s woman of the year was also the most influential person in podcast: her relationship with American football lunk Travis Kelce catapulted him into the elite echelon of podcasters).
Podcasts are Social Media
More elliptical, perhaps, is my sense that podcasts have now diverged significantly enough from traditional media, that they share greater kinship with social media. I’ve been privy to the inner working of a British media organisation, which, over the past few years, has hired heavily into its audio-visual departments. It has done this pretty much in line with other media organisations of a similar ilk. But those departments are kept totally distinct and away from the legacy elements of the brand, which both means a lack of editorial oversight but also that they are not subject to the same market conditions. Where media organisations in the UK have been laying off large numbers of staff due to falling circulation or declining ad retail, these cuts have rarely, if ever, come from audio-visual departments. It is symptomatic of a separation between church and state.
The emerging forms of media, in the past few years, have all been social. YouTube, TikTok, Twitch: they are typified by a generation that has learnt to speak social media natively, rather than using it as a crude tool. This has been beneficial, especially in the past twelve months when the bods at Twitter and Facebook have done all they can to destroy the symbiotic relationship between journalism and social media. But when dealing natively with these platforms, journalists (and I do call them that) better understand how to use them to their advantages.
What typifies social media — aside from the obvious things like being “social” — is the difficulty of revenue extraction. I know people who have hundreds of thousands of subscribers on TikTok or YouTube and still struggle to make a living. Some cannot extract any revenue at all, such are the arcane international rules of these platforms. It is a complex challenge: Meta has embraced direct sales, offering subscriptions natively on Instagram and pushing the Facebook Marketplace to become a genuine competitor to eBay. Twitter, under Elon Musk, has vacillated between fully divesting itself of advertiser dependence, and trying to push into the subscription era, and courting those same advertisers again (it seems to depend on whether Musk or CEO Linda Yaccarino is at the reins). Where social media is booming, financially, is in brand deals. This is old school advertising by another name: whether that’s streamers sipping Mountain Dew or thotty TikTokers wearing fast fashion stained with the blood of south Asian children, it’s all just another version of big shiny billboards.
Like social media, the barriers to entry in podcasting were always low, and that was the basis of the medium’s success. Much effort was then spent by companies like Anchor, Riverside and Adobe in lowering those barriers still. There are now free solutions to almost every element of the process: free hosting, free AI enhancement, free VoIP systems, free DAWs. That lack of impediment is much more like Pinterest than publishing; more akin to TikTok than TV. What was previously a low barrier to an entry (like, I don’t know, a gate) is now no barrier at all, like a twig or piece of lint. This is no bad thing, but it has pushed podcasting further away from that core of prestige media, which is, to some extent, protected from the winds of media fashion.
Value extraction in podcasting is a particular challenge, due to the nature of the medium. No visuals make it off-putting to retail, which is the biggest industry by digital ad-spend, representing 27.9% of the market. Additionally, the lack of a direct click option, unlike most social media, remains a huge drawback (we’ve known this for years and years, and yet there’s little that can be done). Instead we rely on things like checkout codes as a measure of advert success, which is troglodyte levels of crude. The truth is that value extraction from social media is only heading in one direction, and podcasts are at the vanguard of that slump.
Reasons to be Cheerful?
At the start of 2023, I was a bit agnostic, personally, about my future in the industry. I run a company, Podot, which is moderately successful and produces plenty of good work. But I’d released two documentary podcasts in 2020 and 2021 — The Town That Didn’t Stare and The Town That Knew Too Much — to a degree of critical acclaim, but zero commercial success. These projects had made me feel like I was more excited by the content element than by the business side of things. Add to that my side-hustle as the Chief TV Critic of The Independent here in the UK, and I was in a journalism frame of mind.
But digital media, and the business thereof, continues to exert a pull on me, like my dog tugging the lead when he senses the presence of a stray chicken bone. Looking ahead to 2024 — a year in which the US and UK will likely both have significant elections — I do think that podcasting, and audio media, can play a role in the conversation. I won’t reverse ferret on what I said this time last year — I still think that the idea of podcasting, as it used to be, is dead as the dodo — but I will add some significant reasons for optimism.
The first is that I sense the media, collectively, becoming more savvy about the idea of direct sales. This doesn’t just mean the Daily Mail going behind a paywall — it means the Pod Save America lads launching their own brand of coffee, or the New York Times selling a Spelling Bee cap so sexy that Steve Martin trots around Manhattan wearing one. There was a time, a few years ago, when the Dollar Shave Club launched a men’s lifestyle website called MEL. That project ended and I have no idea whether DSC considered it a success, but it was a canary in the coal mine of a new relationship between product and broadcaster. I suspect that in 2024 we’ll see an increase in this sort of kinship, running in both directions: more brands will try and create editorially independent projects through which to stealthily market their products and harvest consumer data, and more editorial undertakings will segue back into the world of direct sales (I’m thinking of a The Rest is History lecture series, or The Diary of a CEO accounting software).
Secondly, I think that the lower barriers to entry (as discussed earlier) can be utilised to create more content, more quickly. News is always a fast-paced business, but it has only accelerated in recent years. Covid, war in Ukraine, the situation in Gaza, and, next, the election cycle: all will benefit from speed and ease of creation. For me, the clearest competitor for podcasts right now is not YouTube but newsletters. There is no doubt, to me, that daily podcasts are the next major media battleground, and one that will be extremely profitable for a handful of media organisations. Do I think that Joe Nobody, sat in his mom’s basement, is going to create the next major daily news podcast? No, I don’t. But I think there will be an acceleration of the arms race in this space, because there is no form of multimedia content that will be easier to create on a daily basis.
Thirdly, I suspect that the advent of the AI age (*sigh*) will take the edge off some of the over-saturation stresses on podcasting. Part of the reason why podcasting feels so dispiriting right now, to a lot of its podcasters, is because the low barrier to entry has created a marketplace awash with content. Heaps of content on heaps of content. Where does AI come into this? Well, there are a lot of podcasters who have no real loyalty to the medium, but have simply gone there because it was easy and zeitgeisty. The momentum is now very much with AI when it comes to lazy, sloppy content creation, which ought to sort the wheat from the chaff. Already we’re losing some of those LinkedIn-adjacent, hustlecore bro-casters, and that’s no bad thing.
Fourthly, I think it’s always important to remember that I write these analyses with a whole-market perspective, but I’m particularly interested in two groups. Mid-serious podcasters, with audiences between 1,000 and 20,000 per episode, who I think are routinely undervalued by the industry. And aspirant podcasters, people who have yet to produce work but hold all the potential for the industry. There is, however, a world beyond this. Here in the UK, it’s been really energising (in some senses) to see the success of Goalhanger, a company that is independent of the major media organisations who are so dominant in our landscape. I could easily, and happily, write a 2,000 word piece about how the triumph of Goalhanger suggests the existence of an alternative future in which podcasting, and digital media, flourishes. Personally, I am disinclined to adopt too celebratory a tone about the success of the top 1% of podcasts — but there’s definitely a version of this piece that would be much more focused on just how great 2023 has been for a select group of emergent brands.
Fifthly, and finally, I think that audio remains a value proposition for advertisers and investors. I suspect that video journalism and short-form media is likely to be heavily, and negatively, impacted by AI. The lack of complexity in audio, technically, makes it less easy to gazump: there are few advantages to AI-generating voices rather than, you know, recording humans. I also think that audio, when used well, can be the ultimate hybrid media form in conjunction with real life. I have this sneaking feeling that real life — the IRL world as opposed to the internet one — is on the cusp of reasserting itself, precipitated by the AI revolution. But audio sits neatly between these two realities. Is it better to consume a podcast when walking the dog or when playing a video game? The truth is it works for both. And people are continuing to innovate in this space. I myself have a great pitch for a new audio service, so if you happen to be a well-heeled VC investor whose made it this far, drop me a line: email@example.com
The fact is that audio is still cheap. Unlike AI, it is controllable. In contrast to YouTube, it has been largely untroubled by scandals and crisis. It is an industry that has matured, quietly, even if it has not reached financial maturation. With further economic disquiet on the horizon for 2024, I suspect that treading water is the best the industry can hope for over the next twelve months — but it may be that the view from December 2024 looks a little clearer, if not rosier.
I want to end, at long last, with a couple of things that bug me about responses to these pieces.
The first is that there’s no irony in holding opinions that are not compatible with your professional circumstances. It was held up as the height of satire that my piece on the subscription economy heading down the toilet was accompanied by a call to subscribe to my newsletter (not to mention the fact it was posted on a site which runs on subscriptions). This is not unintended. Just as my experiences over the past decade as a podcast professional have informed my bear-in-a-bull-market perspective on podcasting, so too do my blogs on here speak to my experiences with subscription generation. My point has never been that you shouldn’t take out subscriptions, or that writers shouldn’t launch Substacks, but that the current rate of expansion is unsustainable. If you think that presents an irony then I suppose there’s really no helping you…
The second is that I write these blogs basically as a stream of consciousness. I live digital media — it is, quite literally, my job — and I think about it all the time. All the same, I don’t spend many hours on the task of writing these pieces, nor do I work with an editor, so it’s not impossible — with my greatest apologies, esteemed sirs and madams — that mistakes will slip in. I really enjoy writing these blogs and would love to do more of it. But at the moment, I balance it with my client work which is serious and pays my bills. If you want to support this writing I’d be grateful if you subscribe to the newsletter or, better yet, employ me for analysis and consultancy work. I’m always happy — no: delighted — to hear from readers.
Third, and final, is the question of whether I regret saying that podcasting is dead (or that the end of the subscription era is coming). The truth is that, when you are writing blogs like this, especially when you are both author and outlet, you have to play to audience expectations. Maybe “2023 is Likely to Be a Rough Year for Podcasting” would’ve been more accurate (and made me look, in hindsight, smarter) but it wouldn’t have got the same pick-up. In order to be good at predicting where things are heading, you need to be willing to take a punt. We can all hedge our bets and couch our suspicions in vague language, in a way that means we are never quite wrong but never quite right. It’s more interesting, to me, to try and swing for the fences. And the death of podcasting — though, like Mark Twain’s, rather premature — symbolised something for me. The end of an era. For me, the question now is whether the new era has begun, and what shape it will take.