Is podcasting actually dying?
At the end of last year (December 16th, to be exact; Bill Hicks’ birthday) I published a piece here on Medium called “2022: The Year That Podcasting Died”. It was a continuation of something I’ve been doing since I started my digital media company, Podot, which is to end the year with an audit of both personal and industrial trends and reflections. Are things going well? Are they heading in a positive direction? And what is my best guess for the near future?
I gave it that title for two reasons: firstly, I wanted to reflect my broad pessimism about the continued viability of the open-RSS audio podcast as we’ve known it over the past decade, and, secondly, I wanted people to click on the article. As Jeff Vidler over at Signal Hill Insights noted the headline was intended to “target clicks more than they reflect the balance presented in the story itself”. But, so what? I’m a self-made man. My audience isn’t going to generate itself.
I published that in December and pretty quickly Bloomberg followed up with a piece called “The Great Podcasting Market Correction” in which they argued that “the podcast boom is feeling like a thing of the past”. Now Bloomberg is a serious outlet, not some tinpot blog that a bloke in south London is writing for his own amusement (even if they did quote my piece in the opening, and drag me back into the discourse) — and it felt like this piece, particularly, along with one from Nick Quah in Vulture, got a really anxious conversation started. Is podcasting out of boom phase and into bust o’clock? And, on top of all that, Spotify announced a 6% total workforce layoff, including many from its podcast divisions, amidst rumours of a strategic rethink away from the big podcasting manoeuvres of recent years.
Since I published my blog, I’ve been asked a lot — both publicly and privately — about the state of the podcast market. As I spell out in the piece, the crux of the issue for me is that I would not invest in, or look to scale, an audio-only content business, currently. I believe that there is huge potential for digital media that is consumed in a manner not dissimilar to podcasts (a mealy-mouthed way of saying “podcasts, but with a different technological underpinning”) but that we will look back and see the 2022/23 period as probably the moment where podcasts iterate away from the open-RSS audio download product of the past decade. So yes, in that sense, the old podcast is dying.
There is also an open question as to whether the podcast industry is dying. I think there are two answers to this question: firstly, observing that trends are not great but don’t look anything close to terminal, and, secondly, reassuring people that it’s far too early to tell. Additionally, I don’t think the markers of industrial productivity are very interesting to most podcasters. Sure, Spotify are laying off some of their podcast team, Amazon are trying to wriggle out of exclusivity deals, QCode can’t find a buyer — but these are issues that affect the top 0.1% of global podcasters. The issues that affect everyone — audience figures and advertiser revenue — are moving in the right general direction, even if the pace of travel is slower. We might not see many multi-million dollar exits for podcast entrepreneurs in 2023, but that’s an issue that affects the Alexes of this world (Blumberg, Cooper et al) and not me, Joe Everyman.
My ambition, with the piece, was to kickstart an important conversation about the next iteration of podcasting — and also represent some of the concerns probably being faced by grassroots podcasters, but not addressed by the industry in a larger sense. I don’t want to take credit for the doom and gloom that’s followed — not least because my accountant and shareholders might want a quiet word with me — but it’s certainly struck a nerve. Last week, for example, I was invited on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show to discuss the blog (and the Spotify lay-offs) which is kind of extraordinary to me, given that I just bashed it out at my computer.
So no, I don’t really think that podcasts are dying. I think at the elite level, where serious money can be made, they’re iterating into something else; but at the grassroots level they will endure for many more years, until hardware changes sufficiently radically to disrupt that (I imagine that if we all start adopting VR headsets, it will spell the end of audio-only content).
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Frequently Asking Questions (about podcasting’s imminent demise)
But I also got a lot of responses here on Medium — some positive, some negative — that I didn’t reply to over the Christmas period, but which I’d like to address now. This is not comprehensive by any means, but I want to offer a representative sample. Take it, if you must, as an FAQ.
JF Danskin: Surely there’s a difference between its growth peaking and it having died?
I totally agree with, and perhaps I should’ve used the word “dying” rather than “dead”. But, unfortunately, the way that technology works these days is that growth can never be allowed to plateau. To plateau is to decline. I’ve always said, with podcasting, that perhaps accepting that only a relatively small percentage of the global population will ever be podcast consumers would be a good thing. It would place the industry in a correct perspective, and work as a counterweight to some of the more insane, inflationary predictions. But that’s not the way any industry works. The quest for growth is long and terminal, and if there’s a market perception that podcasts have stopped growing, that’s as good as them being in decline.
Renato Marcos Endrizzi Sabbatini, PhD: Clubhouse and Discord and podcasts in general are Big Big losers for learning anything, the listener cannot recall anything after a few minutes! Gave up on them, even deleted the apps and do not accept invitation. No future.
This is an interesting perspective, but not one I agree with. It’s clear that one of the expanding areas for podcasts in recent years has been as a form of quite basic EdTech. Indeed, I think podcasts perform better as a knowledge repository than as a broadcast mechanism, precisely because of their mechanics. Current affairs podcasters should always be aware that 24 hours is likely to have passed from recording to consumption, which is not an issue in radio or TV. That’s why I find the conflation of podcasting with Clubhouse and Discord, in this response, a bit strange.
Michael Porter: I listened to one podcast. Interesting and boring. Never since. Talking head video — same experience. All too slow. Talking heads are not dynamic at all.
This is something that I’ve heard a lot, since I posted the December blog. People who don’t like podcasts, or who have never engaged with the medium, treating it as validation for their scepticism. That’s not unreasonable (though I do think it’s perverse to read podcast industrial analysis if you’ve never listened to a podcast) if you want confirmation of your perspective. But equally, it’s sort of a facile argument. Sort-of like how men of a certain age will dismiss Keeping Up with the Kardashians or my partner will roll her eyes about how invested I am in the West Ham XI. Not liking something does not make it uninteresting or unimportant. Podcasts are not “too slow” or “not dynamic”. That’s not the issue. Some podcasts are undoubtedly paced like a snail marathon and as dynamic as a Vauxhall Corsa, but good and bad sit side by side in every medium. Once again: my concerns for the long-term viability of the audio-only podcast have nothing to do with the quality of the product.
Samantha Hodder: There is a pivot-to-video scene, I would also argue that there’s a strengthening of the Audio-first-and-only … the narrative podcast zone. Every company wants to make this serialized content. Not because it makes money but because it wins awards (and then some still win a lottery and get optioned)… the arrival of Podcast Criticism as a thing cannot be ignored and it explains the growth of this industry, along with its nuances.
Intellectual property is the big known unknown in podcasting. There have been a number of successful sales of podcast content to TV, something that has helped fund the book industry for decades, and I expect to see that increasing as a pipeline. So yes, that’s a new revenue source. But what does it mean for pricing your IP? I’d argue that any documentary podcast, whether it’s been optioned for TV/film development or not, has an IP value that should be relevant to its owner’s business model. But how does that get factored in when 0.01% of podcasts are being optioned, and 0.001% are getting commissioned? At the moment there is an unambiguous value to podcast IP, but until there’s some mechanic for deriving actual cash value from holding that, a lot of the potential remains latent.
As for podcast criticism offering insights into the growth of the industry… well, I’m a professional TV critic and I can safely say that I don’t think I have any impact on the success or failure of any TV shows. Podcast criticism even less so. I made an audio documentary a couple of years ago which was reviewed in most of the major UK newspapers. I tracked pretty carefully whether there was any correlation between reviews being published and my audience figures. And let me tell you that nothing — except being featured on Apple and a two-page splash in the Daily Mail, stolen from the show — made any impact!
Tobias: I don’t need to watch Joe Rogan’s or Jordan Peterson’s to consume their content. Actually I’m more productive with just listen to what they have to say.
Whilst I would encourage you to diversify your listening habits, what you say is exactly in line with my thinking. You are more productive just listening to your podcasts, of course, as that unlocks your potential to do other things. That has always been a failure, to some extent, of visual content — it is, after all, the reason we can’t watch telly while driving the car. And audio-only content solves that. But Peterson and Rogan have always approached their digital media empires as video-first for a reason: it’s easy enough to convert video to audio (just close your eyes, or open a new browser tab) whereas it’s impossible to effectively convert audio back to video. And that’s the crux of why I think that the next iteration of the podcast has to be video-first: because unvideoing video is so much easer than revideoing audio.
Carl St. James aka Radiohedgefund: I wonder if its just the commercial side of things?
I think this is a key point. Yes, this is just the commercial side of things. From a content perspective, podcasts have never been better. There are more people involved in podcasting, and more experience circulating. This can only be a good thing.
And podcasting was born as a non-commerical movement, a sort-of bedroom radio station. I think, in that sense, it will endure for many years, if not decades, to come. If you do not need to make money from something — perhaps are even willing to spend money on it — then you have a totally different set of KPIs. But even for non-commerical podcasters, there are serious things to thing about with the current state of play in podcasting: am I best served by doing this project without video? Should I think about live broadcast? How do I develop a community? Because the huge financial imperatives at play do impact non-commercial podcasters. Take, for example, the Apple and Spotify podcast homepages, which used to be a fairly decentralised, meritocratic space. Well, as the investment by both those companies in podcasting has increased, so has the skew within their curation. Increasingly, those homepages showcase either company originals or shows that have a financial tie (such as a subscription mechanic) to the distributor. The playing field is getting a little less even, and gradually this will chip away at the ability of podcasting to even be an effective non-commerical medium.
Luca Balestrieri: its sad but i think the podcast should get quicker nobody wants to listen a dude 2 hours talking about history. But you will watch a 2 hour video
Just for the record, I will not be watching a two-hour video! Or listening to a two-hour podcast.
Videos should be maximum 18 minutes, and podcasts a maximum of 42 minutes. That’s my rule.
Jonathan Harker: I’m a full time podcaster and make a good living. The only time I would claim that “podcasting is dead” was if didn’t, which I’m guessing is you. I didn’t read your article though, I’m just here for the headline.
I suppose I only have myself to blame for comments like this. And perhaps my personal economic anxieties do inform the piece. Jonathan makes “a good living” as a “full time podcaster” (I’m assuming the name is a Bram Stoker inspired pseudonym, and perhaps he’s actually Joe Rogan). I do the same, and make a decent living. But I also run my company, Podot, that has responsibilities to staff, presenters and our extremely pricey central London office/studio. So as these costs mount up, I need more than just “decent” or even “good” — I need to make a living from podcasting that pays for myself, my staff, my business overheads, my office space.
But podcasting is full of people who claim to be “full time podcasters” and make a lot of money from their business. I would love some of these people to talk me through their economic model. Who are their clients? What is their advertising revenue? How many subscribers do they have? Because I suspect that quite a lot of these people live in the Land of Bullshit, and those that don’t are probably in the neighbouring Republic of Self-delusion. Podcasts are not exempt from economic currents; in fact, they’re very vulnerable to them. The housing market may be buffetted by economic ill-wings, but, ultimately, everyone needs somewhere to live. Nobody needs a podcast. Complacency is the enemy and so you should try not to be like Jonathan, and instead do read my articles.
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