Is podcasting heading the way of radio?
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Podcasting only has a few true influencers, but Nicholas Quah is one of them.
He’s the podcast critic for Vulture, which means he’s one of the most important voices in recommending new shows, but, more importantly, he’s also the founder of the podcast newsletter Hot Pod, which he sold to Vox in 2021. It is now part of The Verge and, let’s be honest, a pale imitation of what it was at the height of its success. Hot Pod was industry focused, but tackled breaking news and exclusives in a way that made it essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the future of the media. Its spin-off podcast, Servant of Pod, was less successful.
All this is just to say that when Quah speaks, the industry listens.
This week, Quah published an essay in Vulture, titled ‘Podcast is Just Radio Now’, which has been getting a lot of pick-up and pushback from the industry. To synthesise the piece, which you should also read, Quah’s argument is: eight years ago, NPR released Serial, the true crime thriller (back in the news this week) which made podcasting mainstream. After that, a succession of must-listen hits like Missing Richard Simmons and S-Town followed and podcasting seemed to be going great guns. But, after that, the idea of the “blockbuster podcast” has tailed off, and been replaced by the hegemony of the always-on podcast, like the Joe Rogan Experience or Call Her Daddy. The industry’s “energy is just coming from chatcasts”, Quah concludes, which is apparently the direction that radio headed in the US.
Quah’s diagnosis does not come with remedies, but he identifies a number of issues that have contributed to the difficulties faced by new limited release series. Max Linsky of Pineapple Street is quoted as lamenting the number of new series being launched in any give timeframe, while iHeartRadio’s Will Pearson makes it clear that, for his business, the key is cracking as many shows as possible that do 1,000,000+ downloads a month. And limited release series by-and-large i) don’t, and ii) certainly don’t, month on month.
First off, let me look at the pushback to Quah’s piece, which I think exposes quite a strange side to the podcast industry:
James Cridland, who writes the PodNews newsletter, responded by pointing out that podcasting is listened to by 38% of the population (per week) while 80+% listen to radio. James is an ex-radio guy and often makes the point that podcasts are not killing off radio, nor should radio fear it, and I think his point here is that if podcasts were becoming radio it would be a perfectly healthy thing!
That said, I don’t think Quah is really making that point. I think the point is about the way that shock-jocks like Howard Stern came to dominate the radio waves with the launch of increasing numbers of private stations and networks. Podcasting is becoming radio, not in a sense of redundancy, but in a tonal and content shift, as the revenue model looks more and more like its on-air cousin.
Another critique came from Starlee Kine, whose amazing podcast Mystery Show is referenced in the piece. She objected to the description of her show, which was produced by Gimlet, as limited run, pointing out that it was cancelled, and argued that Connor Ratliff’s Dead Eyes is “at least as big a hit as The Bear” (the TV show cited in the piece as the big small screen hit of the summer). The comparison of Dead Eyes to The Bear is something I can’t comment on (not least because The Bear hasn’t yet aired in the UK) but if Dead Eyes is the closest we currently have to a Serial, I think that only reinforces Quah’s point.
Perhaps weirdest of all, a spoonerised parody account, @QuickNah, sprung up to lampoon Quah’s thesis. “Anyone heard any good podcasts lately?” the pinned tweet reads. “NO YOU HAVEN’T” it replies, answering its own question. The impulse to start a parody account to attack the work of a journalist you don’t agree with is one that we all have to fend off – the fact that a thesis as innocuous as “the market conditions are making it hard for new limited release series to cut-through to true mainstream success” is enough to inspire one, suggests to me the slight detachment of some podcasters from reality. I highly doubt that the person behind the @QuickNah Twitter account has a really successful podcast. In fact, they are probably exactly the sort of person being hamstrung by the economics that Quah outlines. And yet all they can take away from that article is: there are no good podcasts anymore.
So what do I – the other Nick; the bad Nick – make of the piece and its perspective?
A few months ago, there was a similar piece published in a Bloomberg newsletter titled “Podcasting Hasn’t Produced a New Hit in Years” which came to many of the same conclusions and provoked the same response. I tried to defend the writer, Lucas Shaw, in a blog post and on Twitter, but I think he took it the wrong way.
Anyway, as readers of my blog or newsletter will know, I am very pessimistic about the long-term financial viability of limited-release podcasting. And I am also apprehensive about the expansion of the market. So I am inclined to agree with Quah – and please bear in mind that I am a podcaster (someone who makes their living through podcasting too) and I have a dog in this fight, and he’s a Yorkshire Terrier. So don’t shoot the messenger.
Firstly, on the economics. I released two limited-series documentaries, one in summer 2020 and one in summer 2021 (The Town That Didn’t Stare and The Town That Knew Too Much). They have hundreds of thousands of listens (though not millions, sorry iHeartRadio). They are very much British podcasts, and did pretty well over here, picking up a good number of reviews and press attention. I didn’t make a penny directly from either of them, in fact I’ve lost money on both.
People often ask me when the next series is coming and, in truth, the answer is never. Even though I would’ve liked to make another series, I made the fatal decision that I would only do it if I could make it cover its costs. I had a number of meetings and conversations with creator relations and partnership managers at major distributors and advertising agents and basically arrived at the conclusion that it wasn’t going to happen. If I was going to sign a sponsor, it would require me to go out cap in hand. And if I was going to generate enough subscribers to make the project viable, it was going to require me to go out cap in hand. And frankly, my cap is going to stay on my head.
But what all these people said is that the only thing that matters now, to the financial viability of a project, is quantity. 20+ episodes a year, 10k+ listeners per ep (in the UK, that figure is higher in the US). There’s no doubt that if you’re making a limited release show at Wondery or Serial or wherever, you can square the economic circle pre-release, but outside of that elite tier it’s no longer worth trying. You can risk the entire financial viability of your business on a folly.
As to the expansion of the market: there’s an old economic aphorism that “today’s shortage is tomorrow’s glut” (something I keep telling myself when I see my energy bills). The reverse is also true: today’s glut is tomorrow’s shortage. The podcast market is underpinned by a number of important factors:
- You have public sector broadcasters, who contribute a decent slice of the pie in the UK and the US. Here in the UK, it’s very realistic that there could be a major revamp to the BBC’s funding model in the next few years, as the corporation moves to a post-license fee era. This will inevitably mean job cuts and reductions in commissioning budgets.
- You have the private sector broadcasters, like newspapers, magazines and those handful of audio-first publications. For historically print publications, audio was a pivot tried in the past 5-10 years to combat shrinking circulations. We already saw the pivot to video getting unravelled, will the pivot to audio go the same way?
- You have podcast production companies, like my own. These companies either live on a precarious balance sheet or have been buffed up by private capital investment. But with tech stocks taking a market battering, and podcasting a parasitic industry, it’s hard to see that sort of investment continuing. Especially if we enter a recession (or just our inevitably tougher economic terms).
- You have the corporate podcast sector, and here the rough seas of the global economy are going to wreak havoc. Marketing and comms budgets are the first to get slashed in a crisis. It’s easier to shut down a podcast than lay off stay and face redundancy packages and potential lawsuits. And for a long time the world of corporate podcasting has existed in a way that avoids KPIs, analytics or any real scrutiny. When staff are being handed severance packages, do you think the management consultants are going to keep the podcast that gets 80 listens a week and costs $2000 an episode?
The podcast industry has grown and grown, but that growth is not exponential. It’s predicated on a number of scarce resource. Audiences are scarce resources, but an area there could still be growth in (though it will take some focus on changing Gen Z media consumption habits). Funding is a scarce resource, and becoming ever scarcer. But, most importantly, time is a scarce resource. Even the most avid podcast listener can only fit so many shows into their schedule.
The focus then, needs to be on growing audiences. And that’s why I can understand, to some extent, the frustration over articles like Quah’s, which if you don’t read the nuance and just take away the headline, seem doom-mongering. But the reality is that podcasting could use a hit. And this week’s Serial related news – the release of its protagonist, Adnan Syed – is a reminder of how insanely watercooler that show was. Serial is back at the top of the charts, both in the US and UK, and I don’t doubt that there are plenty of people who have basically stopped consuming podcasts, who tuned back in this week.
But Quah doesn’t provide many solutions, though, to be fair, that’s not his job. So I’m going to conclude this piece with some ideas for solutions. Firstly though, we need to identify the trends that cannot be stopped – and the elements it is not within the gift of the podcast industry to control:
1) People can make as many podcasts as they want. People will only stop making podcasts when they stop being gratified by that process. The mechanics are becoming easier – microphones are cheaper, and more free hosting sites are springing up. Tweaks to Apple Podcasts submission, or Spotify, could slightly discourage this, but I cannot see the trend changing. That said: I expect active podcasts, the crucial figure, to start declining at some point in the next couple of years.
2) We cannot undo the damage that has been done to digital advertising. Put simply, we are not going back to the early-00s, when we’d all be making bank.
3) Podcast curation is a red herring. All that can be done to meaningfully improve audience numbers is to normalise podcast listening and make more people comfortable with the mechanics. The curation issues faced by podcasting are ubiquitous across every industry.
And now to the things that I think could be changed:
1) Improve analytics to make it clearer what the level of audience engagement is. I strongly suspect that most limited-release series get a much better active listen and completion rate than most always-on series. Most of the always-on series I subscribe to auto-download and I listen to, say, 1 in 4. Most limited series I listen to, I consume start-to-finish. At the moment, the crudeness of analytics make it very hard to refine that data for potential advertisers.
2) Sales agents are not very imaginative and quantity is easier to sell than quality. This is why prestige brands, like Wondery or Pineapple Street or Serial, have thrived in this space. When you focus on limited series, and your sales team focuses on limited series, you develop a different perspective. The problem is that 90%+ of sales agents working in the podcast sales space, work predominantly selling against always-on series, and thus the relationship they develop with advertisers is predicated on volume. More specialised agencies, or more segregation of the roles within agencies, would help here.
3) Publications LOVE hiring audio producers and editors. I have been the beneficiary of this, and can’t complain. What they are much less good at is hiring audio journalists or reporters. They are much less good at building an audio-first investigation. The reality is that, since Serial, dozens of stories have broken that would’ve made for blockbuster podcasts: but they’ve almost all been reported either for print or TV first. Look at the success of Sweet Bobby on a relatively modest production budget, because they choose audio as the medium for that story. Publications could do so much more with audio if they saw it as more than an auxiliary department or a way of reheating other content.
But perhaps more important than anything else, is to accept the industry for what it is. To see these changes in landscape not as barriers but challenges. I myself have had to come to terms with that. I love history and you’d think that the enormous expansion of History as a genre within podcasting would’ve pleased me. But I also love reported storytelling, where things are carefully researched and space given to experts to tell the story. And the rise of the History podcast has involved the opposite of that: it’s involved a reliance on Wikipedia, on uncredited books by uncredited writers. It’s relied on banter and conversations and interviews, and all the stuff that takes a week to make, rather than a year.
But you adapt or you die. And if your podcasting comes with a financial necessity – someone’s got to earn to keep the lights on – then there probably isn’t time to wait for the industry to reform itself. Probably Quah is right that the future will look more and more like radio, where personalities and celebrities dominate the airwaves.
It’s up to you, and your accountant, whether you find that depressing or not.