For the last several years, people in other media industries, including television and print publishing, have been asking whether we've reached “Peak Content.” In 2016, Kevin Anderson wrote, “For a long time, we’ve been creating too much content, so much so that I think that we’ve already reached Peak Content, the point at which this glut of things to read, watch and listen to becomes completely unsustainable.”
The cost of producing and delivering content dropped thanks to new digital tools. Now, you don't have to be a media outlet to produce content. Everyday companies are regularly pumping out content as part of their marketing strategies, while everyday people are uploading thousands of videos, photos, and blogposts. This flood has fragmented the audience, putting pressure on media companies to produce more content in the hopes of retaining a big enough chunk for a workable revenue model. In 2015, Erica Berger noted, “we’ve created an atmosphere in newsrooms where editorial literally cannot create more content with the teams they have now.”
To complicate matters, for years, advertisers have been moving their dollars away from content creators in favor of the businesses that surface content. Berger continues:
Where’s the money going to then, you ask? To Facebook, Google, and Twitter, the winners on mobile. And it doesn’t seem to be coming back. As publishers turn more and more to serving their content through Facebook (see targeted audience, and serving people where they already are), they’re actually giving up much of their ad revenue to the platform hosting their content.
[A]d sales executives are freaking out, as their clients go to other places, and as their news teams start distributing in said places, and as ad blockers proliferate. The money they are bringing in is going down… and so…even if they could sell as they were a few years ago, the money isn’t enough to warrant hiring more editorial staffers.
In short, the content wars have become a race to the bottom.
What does this have to do with podcasting? We're now seeing the same glut of content in audio that blogs gave rise to in text and YouTube in video. With over 700,000 podcasts out there and more being launched every day, there's way more than anybody could ever consume. On top of that, almost half the population doesn't even listen to podcasts! (Whether that's a roadblock or an opportunity is open for debate.)
Back in 2014, Digiday made “The Case Against The Venture Capital Craze for Content.” Five years later, with BuzzFeed and HuffPost laying off employees, the article seems prescient. Yet here come the investors again, ready to plow money into podcasting. In the last year, we've seen hundreds of millions of dollars from large companies and venture capitalists alike flow into the space. To receive an investment check these days, all you need to do is say, “We're going to be the _________ of podcasting!” (“Cadillac!,” “Netflix!,” “HBO!,” “Tang!”)
There are a variety of revenue models being used — from old-fashioned advertising to subscription services to branded content. Yet, it's not clear that any of the folks putting money into podcasting have a reliable, road-tested method for getting it back out. I'm a big supporter of experimentation, but there's a difference between experimentation and speculation. Speculation leads to bubbles, and bubbles burst.
If we look to other forms of media, the bubble isn't hard to see. The rash of articles about “Peak Content” from 2014 to 2016 has now been supplanted with articles about the content bubble bursting: from Nieman Labs, Marketing Week, PR Week, Ad Age, and others.
When it does burst, there will be a chorus of voices claiming that you can't make money in podcasting. We heard this same refrain in the wake of the internet bubble bursting at the beginning of the century. Of course, that extreme isn't true either. As we've seen, it is possible to build a profitable business using the internet. But the way you do it is different than the way we built businesses before. The same will be true of podcasting.
So here's my best advice: Don't assume that the revenue models of the past will work for podcasting. Pay attention to how businesses in other sectors — especially print and video — have grappled with the Peak Content problem. And don't invest any money that you can't afford to lose until you've got a proven method for recouping it. Otherwise: Pop!