YouTubification is coming for the media

Nick Hilton
12 min readApr 17, 2024
Non-threatening sweethearts, MrBeast and Steven Bartlett

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As someone working in professional podcasting, I routinely have clients asking me what the big podcast platforms are. Apple, I tell them, has been leading the way since the medium arose, though Spotify, I add, have made a big bet in recent years. But I always have a little twist to add to my answer, which is to tell them that’s there’s another major podcast platform that’s been stealthily increasing its market share over the past few years, without people really even noticing: YouTube.

Founded in 2005 by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jared Karim (early employees of PayPal, the nexus of the next 20 years of technological development), YouTube has been steadily growing in influence for years. Noting that a company which was acquired by Google for $1.6bn almost 20 years ago is “growing in influence” might not be the sort of pithy insight you read my blogs for, but it’s also true. For all that YouTube has long been a player in the social media scene, it is only in the past few years that it has started to exhibit true market dominance. Market dominance as a video sharing site, sure, but also a ruthless streak across video streaming, podcasting, music and more.

There’s a meme often shared by the granddads still using Facebook. “In our generation,” the meme (roughly) says, “children grew up wanting to be train conductors. In our children’s generation, they wanted to be astronauts. And now they want to be YouTubers.” And, in my personal experience, it roughly holds up. Boomers wanted to have the best jobs that they could realistically have. Gen Xers wanted to do anything that would piss off the boomers — run a skatepark, say, or live in a garret and write novellas about dead poets. Millennials were told they could do anything, be anything, and so they wanted to be astronauts or footballers or Prime Minister. And Gen Zers — who don’t need to listen to anyone, because all the wisdom of the world is, quite literally, at their fingertips — want to be YouTubers, TikTokers and Twitchers.

To be a YouTuber is to hold, in equilibrium, celebrity status and a real life. To be accessible and inaccessible in equal measure. It is an aspiration to veneration, but it is also an easy one. If you want to be a professional footballer, you need to be one of the 0.1% most genetically gifted and then one of the 0.1% hardest working. To be an actor you need to be 0.1% most beautiful and 0.1% most talented. So on. And in both those cases, you probably have to work for years, take big personal risks, just for a shot at success. And so you can see, in a world where everything is available almost instantly, why the success of a YouTuber is so alluring. Do you have to be beautiful or clever or athletic? No. Do you have to have access to huge privilege, massive capital or vast connections? No. Do you even have to leave your bedroom? No. And there’s no latency too — you can still be an overnight success.

And so, “YouTuber” became a generational ambition, and, as a result, YouTube became more and more important. In terms of sheer time spend consuming media, it is undoubtedly the most important platform in the world. And so it should hardly be a surprise that we are witnessing the near total YouTubification of the media.

What do I mean by that?

Firstly, there is quite a literal trend that we are witnessing. Here in the UK, Rupert Murdoch, still the most important media mogul in the world, even if his personal influence is waning, launched a vanity TV channel called TalkTV, bucking every trend in global media by trying to reassert the power of linear broadcasting. It’s been a near-disaster, but in recent weeks the decision has been made to migrate the channel to online only. Piers Morgan, its star presented, had already announced that his show, Uncensored, would become a YouTube native. For Morgan, who has spent his post-tabloid career working for broadcasters like ITV and CNN, it is not only abnegation of TV tradition but a vote of confidence for YouTube.

But that’s a very literal YouTubification, not dissimilar to the blogification of print media in the early 00s. Duh. Newspapers that used to be paper and ink beings, became pixels and bandwidth. But that blogification also resulted in changes to the newspapers themselves. Papers became more bloggy. More personality driven, more casual, more intended to bait readers. Traffic, that supreme metric of the internet era, infected the print world too. This was partly because journalism that was printed in the New York Times also ended up on nytimes.com, and partly because they bought into a realignment of audience values. People wanted stuff that was more glib, more cynical, more opinionated. The fact that journalism like that was far cheaper to produce than in-depth, analytical, investigative reportage — well, that was just an added bonus.

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Which is all to say that there’s a tonal and cultural YouTubification of the media that we are currently experiencing, as well as an architectural one. In the past couple of weeks, my home industry — audio podcasting (and note, I now have to include the word “audio” to make it clear the sort of product I make) — has provided an example of the way this world is changing. There are two stories here that I’m going to use to build this thesis.

The first relates to a company called Rooster Teeth. Founded way back in 2003, it was acquired by AT&T and absorbed into Warner Bros. Discovery following their merger in 2022. As well as high profile internet video work, Rooster Teeth ran a successful slate of American comedy podcasts for many years. In a way, it was one of the poster boys of a specific sort of punchy, lo-fi podcasting. The sort of podcasting, in short, it’s hard to believe could be unprofitable. That was until it was shitcanned by Warner Bros a few weeks ago, as part of a major corporate overhaul.

One of Rooster Teeth’s former presidents, Ezra Cooperstein, went on to hold the same position at Night Inc., a talent management agency specialising in digital content creators. Night has one client who’s more equal than the others: MrBeast, arguably the most commercially influential content creator in the world right now. With Rooster Teeth up for grabs, Night swooped in, acquiring the brand and saving it from extinction.

What does it mean that a talent agency, essentially for YouTubers, has acquired an important, legacy digital media brand?

“The future of podcasting sits at the heart of the creator economy,” AJ Felciano, head of The Roost (as the podcast network is known), said after the deal. This is an interesting sentiment because it runs counter to many of the trends that we’ve seen in recent years, with regards to podcasting. Podcasting used to be quite a creatorcentric medium, offering people control over their production and distribution. Essentially, you could buy a microphone, broadcast from your garage or basement, and become an important media brand (in much the same way that YouTubers do now).

But the current of the past few years has led to increasing Big Tech entanglement with the product, as well as serious investment from basically all legacy media firms. Look at the relationship between Joe Rogan — a clear example of early creator power — and Spotify, one of the world’s biggest digital media companies. That deal has been filled with creative and financial friction, as Rogan’s freewheeling ‘journalism’ buts heads with the natural caution of Spotify shareholders. It’s just about worked out — such is the power of the Rogan brand — but feels like an exercise that won’t be repeated any time soon, either by Spotify or its competitors. Now, overwhelmingly, the most financially-staked participants in a podcast project are the companies making them, whether big publishers or smaller production companies. Talent still has an important role, but the age of self-publishing seemed to have ended.

But, of course, it hasn’t really. The other story I want you to consider is one that’s emerged here in the UK. Steven Bartlett is the host of Diary of a CEO, one of the biggest podcasts here in the UK. At present it’s №4 in the UK podcast charts, and has rarely, if ever, been outside the Top 10. This week he announced that along with Georgie Holt and Christiana Brenton (both ex-Acast) he would be launching Flight Media, a new podcast “media and technology” company.

So that might make you think that Bartlett is an important, independent voice in podcasting, but my feeling is that he’s something else. He’s a YouTuber.

This is not just because Diary of a CEO has over 400m views on YouTube (with a projection towards 10m YouTube subs by end of year), which, very literally, makes Bartlett a YouTuber, or because he is now one of the resident Dragons on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den. Instead, I want to think about the question of YouTuber vibes. What is the aesthetic difference between a podcaster and a YouTuber?

Bartlett is not Gen Z. He’s my age, 31. But that’s actually in a pretty sweet spot for YouTubers like PewDiePie (34), Ninja (32) or the Dude Perfect crew, all of whom are over 30. Even MrBeast is 25 now, hardly the springiest of chickens. Crucially, Bartlett is old enough to play the business game but young enough to understand how to straddle that generation divide. He knows, as the best YouTubers do, that a wide approach is best for audience figures. Let me break that down, slightly.

The show’s central question is “how do successful people become successful?”, but that comes with a more important, implicit, question. “How can you become successful?” This — as well as being one of the most fundamental human considerations — is not a demographically locked question. People in England worry about their success, as do people in Botswana, Cambodia, Bolivia and Micronesia. It’s a question that straddles gender, and, importantly, age. A 15-year-old listening to rap music about “the hustle” or studying for a Business Studies GCSE is just as likely to agonise about a route to wealth and fame as a 50-year-old long haul truck driver worrying about mortgage repayments. And so, Bartlett addresses this by pitching the show at everyone. The message is not predicated on being young or early career, nor is it predicated on acquiring expensive training or masses of experience. It is inspirational, aspirational stuff that requires nothing more than an open mind.

(Of course, I think this turns it into meaningless blancmange that preys on people’s generalised dissatisfaction with the state of the world, but what I think is really not the point.)

If one were to make the same interrogation of MrBeast’s success, what would you say the explicit and implicit messages of his channel are? “What crazy shit will people do for money?” is probably the surface question, though the underlying current is “how can I enjoy humiliation and exploitation as entertainment, whilst still feeling good about myself?” And like Bartlett, MrBeast pitches his content as generally as possible.

This is, in many ways, the opposite to how podcasting was intended, and how it’s developed. The desire to serve niches that haven’t been addressed by mainstream or traditional media channels was key to podcasting’s take-up. Allowing presenters and guests to be more edgy, more outspoken, more verbose — that too was something that podcasting had over its competitors. It could be geeky and granular or rambunctious and raunchy, but it was always trying to assert its difference from TV and radio.

But the gradual YouTubification of all media is coming for podcasting. Both MrBeast and Steven Bartlett are entirely without edge. Even their faces are weirdly smooth, like they’ve been generated by an AI prompt to produce “non-threatening young men”. Both Jimmy Donaldson (I can’t keep calling him MrBeast, sorry) and Bartlett know that when you have one successful YouTube brand, you have access to the potential to extract further value from the analytic data. It is hard to avoid the feeling that, soon enough, all of podcasting will look like that: a subsidiary of giant YouTube monoliths.

Donaldson’s core MrBeast channel has 250m+ subscribers (the №2 channel globally, after Bollywood hub T-Series). But he also has Beast Philanthropy (23m subs), MrBeast Gaming (43m), Beast Reacts (33m), MrBeast 2 (40m), and a series of smaller, but still profitable, channels (depicted below).

Bartlett, and Flight Media, have launched with the announcement of a suite of shows that will coexist within the DOAC universe, including one by Paul C Brunson, a regular guest on Bartlett’s show, who “has amassed over 3M views and some of the highest engagement data to date.” Another new show will be hosted by Tara Swart, “whose DOAC episode has 11M views to date — the highest performing guest of all time.” And another by Africa Brooke, “whose DOAC episode had one of the biggest impacts across social metrics after its release.” You get the idea: from the analytics of the core brand, you can serve people more and more of exactly what they want.

And this is not the way that podcasting, or print media, has really done business. This is partly a failure in data gathering, but also a difference in ethos. For the past century, journalism has faced an essential question. Do we want to represent the views of our readers, or do we want to shape those views? It is quite a fundamental question in political and policy discourse, and something that both the UK and US is grappling with now. And generally, the desire of the media to be didactic has won out, even while cynicism still exists (just look at The Sun newspaper here in the UK, which is obsessed with backing the winning party at general elections and is slowly but surely pivoting to endorse the Labour party in the 2024 vote).

More and more of what you’re already watching, already engaging with. That’s the YouTube equation. That’s fine for dog videos or nursery rhymes or clips of Gordon Ramsay calling weeping sous chefs “muppets”, but is that still ok if it becomes the dominant means of media consumption? Because people like Donaldson and Bartlett are not coming to the party just for the fun of being in the presence of the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera. They want to be competitive in the most lucrative media spaces. So how does serious news-gathering coexist with this changing landscape? How does the BBC avoid the trap of using data — like their most popular YouTube uploads, below — to craft new product? Because what on earth does real news become, if that happens?

Podcasting, and traditional media, needs to be clear about the lessons it can learn from the YouTube phenomenon, without being overawed by the opportunities. Improving value extraction from committed, engaged but non-infinite audiences is at the heart of that. If CPMs (costs per thousand listeners) continue to reduce, and new opportunities are not found to monetise mid-range podcasts, then the industry will inevitably trend towards broader products. This demographic decoupling is something that divorces podcasting from its origins, but also makes it functionally indistinguishable from YouTube. And at the point where I can’t say where podcasts stop and YouTube starts, the latter has already won.

I’ll end by saying that I think podcasting has been very open-minded about what it could learn from YouTube and the opportunities there for brand development and revenue generation. What could YouTube, and YouTubers, learn from podcasting and other legacy media formats? The governing ethos of short-form video has been repetition and reinforcement; creating an itch and then scratching it. But if MrBeast and Mr Bartlett are serious about improving the world and creating a sustainable media ecosystem, perhaps they need to break their own rules. Perhaps they ought to lead their audiences, as well as being led by them, and invest, not solely in things they know their viewers will like, but things they want their viewers to engage with. That’s the point where you graduate from mere gratification and start to do something interesting and powerful. The sort of stuff that makes a long term impact on the world, and isn’t left behind as a college student’s forgettable 10-minute accompaniment to a bowl of steaming ramen and a hangover.

Do listen to my technology podcast, the Ned Ludd Radio Hour. The latest episode, below, is with author Maggie Jackson talking about the value of uncertainty in a very certain world.

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Nick Hilton

Writer. Media entrepreneur. London. Interested in technology and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.