Sometimes it can be difficult to track an upcoming medium or technology. In the old days when legacy media ruled, you knew what it took to succeed: a minimum number of viewers, listeners, readers – it was all in black and white. The more you had, the more you made.
Yes, I'm oversimplifying the sales and marketing process, but not really. I've met radio station reps who could actually sell through a bad book or two. But I count those rare sellers on two hands. For the most part, sales hinged on the popularity of the product, and secondarily, the quality of the brand.
But in the media-rich world in which we now live, the market is saturated with everything: tons of video streaming options, infinite music playlist sites, vast numbers of books, millions of websites and blogs, and app stores overflowing with choices. And we are overflowing with social media platforms in which to market our products or disseminate (mis)information.
Just about every day, new tech products and brands are launched, pitching unique content. Occasionally, one sticks. But the more common outcome is that even the most promising ones fizzle. Clubhouse is a great case in point. Just two years ago, the audio meeting site was hot, everyone was using it to gather, chat, and exchange ideas.
Until they weren't. And Clubhouse went the way of so many promising media outlets. There is no shortage of flashes in the pan.
Then there's podcasting.
What's your “hot take?” How's podcasting doing? Because unlike so many other media platforms and content centers, you are liable to get a different opinion depending on who you ask. And I'm not just talking about the average guy or gal on the street.
How about people in the business? Many of them can't agree on which side of the line podcasting goes. As it is said, some of my best friends in business and life are podcasters, scrapping out their livings in this very competitive arena. And each has their own unique take and perspective.
It's like the old story about the blind men and the elephant. Each touched a different part of the beast – the tusk, the hide, the trunk, the tail, the ear – and so each came away with a very unique description of a pachyderm. Like podcasting, they were all experiencing an elephant – differently.
I learned enough about podcasting in the “Serial” phase to understand that creating successful shows required a high level of quality – writing, guest booking, production, editing, storytelling, and of course, time. Very few winning podcasts have managed to take a lot of shortcuts along the way. And as a result, I dissuaded a number of radio broadcasters from entering the space. I simply felt most would not have the resources necessary to hack out a win in the space.
But where is podcasting in 2023? Where is its place in the current media hierarchy? And what are its prospects down the road?
It depends who you talk to. One of the great frustrations in the space continues to be the lack of metrics the creative and advertising communities can agree on. To that point, there isn't even consensus on just how many podcasts exist.
So today's post will try to pull all this seemingly disparate information together and give you a sense of why the world of podcasting remains amorphous.
Exhibit A: Axios is generally bearish – A story earlier this month – “Podcasts lose their edge” – by Peter Allen Clark tells you all you need to know in its title. His premise is that ad dollars have slowed down after years of massive growth spurred by COVID.
Clark notes there are fewer new podcasts being spawned. In fact, Listen Notes stats quotes an 80% drop in new shows created last year.
Sure, people regained their lives post-pandemic, but seriously?
And then there's ad revenue, failing to hit the oft-predicted $2 billion level in 2022. As in so many aspects in podcasting, it depends on the source. But some peg last year's revenues at $1.5 billion, while I've also seen $1.7.
Speaking of anomalies, listener growth seems to have slowed, a key performance indicator noted by both Insider Intelligence and our friends at Edison Research. I can tell you I snuck a look at unreleased Techsurvey data last night, and we're charting a nice uptick in weekly podcasting consumption. And Edison/NPR also reports spoken work consumption is rising, which bodes well for podcasting.
More paradoxical data: Spotify has invested heavily in podcasting in just the past few years. And yet, they laid off podcasting staff in October, and again in late January. And they let their chief content and ad business exec Dawn Ostroff go as well. So there's that.
Finally, Axios notes a lack of new hits, a topic I've discussed in this blog before.
Exhibit B: What does an 80% drop look like? – So, let's come back to podcasting's freefall last year. Nieman Lab's Joshua Benton digs deep, and pulls out this dramatic Listen Notes chart:
In a word, “Yikes!”
Benton quotes Hot Pod's Ariel Shapiro who sorts things out this way:
“Creators seem to recognize that until podcast discovery improves, launching a podcast may be a losing proposition. The system seemingly cannot effectively handle the number of podcasts that already exist.”
Put a pin in “discovery.” I'll offer up an interesting story about how one of the nation's biggest retail brands is taking matters into their own hands.
Exhibit C: NPR points fingers – You probably saw the story that public radio's biggest network content producer – NPR – is following the media pattern with a sad announcement earlier this month.
NPR will lay off 10% of its workforce next month. With an employee base of around 1,100, this move will impact a lot of people and their families.
This severe cutback is being done to cope with a $30 million budget shortfall.
The culprit? Ad revenues, according to NPR CEO John Lansing. And the deficits have fallen in the network's podcasting division.
Is it that their portfolio of podcasts have lost their charm or is there a lack of new shows being released? Or is it a matter of NPR underwriting department not being able to generate advertising and sponsorships. Details were not forthcoming.
One thing's for sure: Once one of the success stories of NPR, revenue generated by its podcasts has eroded.
Exhibit D: Hark! Here Comes Starbucks – Earlier this month, the nation's biggest coffee retailer debuted “The Starbucks Daily.” These are a series of daily podcast “moments” that expose you to a new show with short clips from Hark.
You've never heard of Hark? They're a discovery engine with the apt slogan, “Break out of your podcast rut.” It's an interesting concept, worth checking out here.
Starbucks has the heft to launch anything. Keep in mind their number of active rewards members was up to nearly 29 million last October, an increase of 16% year over year.
I'll keep an eye on this as I order my next refill.
Exhibit E: Podcasting goes local – In an interesting prediction for the new year for Nieman Lab, PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman put in out on the table.
Hoffman knows of which she speaks. PRX pioneered the “Podcast Garage” experiment in Boston that we bestowed upon one of our coveted Jacobs Media's “Radio's Most Innovative” awards back in 2016.
Kerri Hoffman believes that “podcasting will grow as an essential source of news, storytelling, and opportunity within local communities.”
An initiative at Buffalo-Toronto Public Media is doing just that. The organization has created an app and has invited local podcasters from across the community to submit their work. This is providing an opportunity for a wide range of diverse local voices to be exposed.
In other words, podcasting's power might not come from the top down, but from the bottom up.
One can only hope.
So, what say you?
Is podcasting experiencing the expected growing pains, exacerbated by post-pandemic weirdness?
Will podcasting metrics finally grow up and coalesce mutually-agreed upon standards – or will the industry continue to be subjected to the cross-currents of data?
Despite a massive falloff in new podcasts, will some big hits finally emerge? I know some say that massive successes aren't what podcasting is all about. Really? How do you explain “Harry Potter” books, “Fast & Furious Movies,” TV series like “Breaking Bad” and “Ozark,” breakout radio personalities syndicated in many markets in every other medium.
How will discovery figure into this? A certain thought leader in podcasting has averred for years that discovery issues are hogwash; that great content finds a way of being found and heard by the masses. But if that's the case, why aren't there more hits and why do so many podcast consumers rightfully claim discovery continues to be a mess?
And as I've pointed to local as the salvation of radio, will Kerri Hoffman's prediction come true? Will hometown citizens of all stripes find their voice via podcasting?
Maybe 2023 is the year podcasting will finally grow up and start giving us answers.
- The Eyes Have It - March 20, 2023
- The JacoBLOG Junk Drawer: The CRS 2023 Edition - March 17, 2023
- How Radio Can Best Deal With A Global Pandemic: Live And Local, Of Course - March 16, 2023
Daniel J. Lewis says
That 80%-drop statistic is horribly misunderstood and misquoted.
The main cause for the drop is that Anchor’s firehose of podflashes (podcasts abandoned after only 1 episode) stopped polluting the Apple Podcasts catalog when their access to “auto”-submit was cut off in summer of 2021.
I’ve been tracking the data through https://podcastindustryinsights.com/ and I saw the literal overnight drop in new podcasts solely because of Anchor.
I provided data to Podnews and they wrote up this good explanation: https://podnews.net/article/down-or-not
Fred Jacobs says
Thanks for the clarity on the “80% drop,” Daniel. We have quoted your data many times, and appreciate your attention to detail.
Brad Hill says
Podcasting has always resembled blogging to me — started as a distinct media category, gradually becoming invisible as its publishing infrastructure was unassumingly bundled into existing media brands. Blogging now is mainly just a CMS. There are still countless personal blogs, but really that just means countless personal sites using the key blogging elements — easy instant publishing and (optional) RSS delivery. An astonishing breakthrough 20+ years ago; taken for granted today. NYTimes.com is basically a blog.
We already see audio drilling down into content infrastructure. The NYTimes acquired Audm, and posts audio versions of some articles. Organized differently, those audio episodes could be packaged and sold as podcasts.
Audio is the enduring category. Podcasting as a structured marketplace can continue per demand — with most of the money concentrated at the top, as with all media.
Fred Jacobs says
Great “take,” Brad. Thanks for weighing in.
Matt Cundill says
There are solutions coming all the time for attribution. We have partnered with Podderapp.com on certain shows to get a little more insight into the audience. While not IAB certified, (another thing that merits discussion amongst podcasters) it meets GDPR requirements and we have managed to create stronger relationships with ad agencies who love the data. There are solutions coming everyday.
Fred Jacobs says
Matt, I hope so. It’s been a long time coming. I’m not suggesting Nielsen (or Numeris) is a great solution, but it’s an industry standard that has acceptance across the board. And when there’s an agreed-upon set of metrics, it simplifies the system, making it easier for marketers to do their business.
Dave Mason says
Fred, all the metrics in the world won’t change reality. I was programming one of the early “All Christmas” formats -and seeing the results made me wonder if there is a collection of secular music that could elicit the same emotion. Follow the ratings of the holiday successes for that answer. In a world that’s as fragmented as today’s world is, where are the commonalities? I suggest you have to ask yourself- “where will Pickleball be in 2025?”.
Fred Jacobs says
Dave, we still don’t have a “passionometer” that marries emotions with metrics. And where will Pickleball be in 2025? I’ll bet on Christmas music.