Next week I will become a full-time podcaster. It feels strange announcing this when so many have lost their jobs in the last few weeks.
Most recently, BuzzFeed decided to shut down their in-house podcast production studio. The PodSquad, a collection of wildly skilled and incredibly generous podcast hosts and producers, are now left to find new jobs in a small and competitive job market.
The PodSquad’s shows were not just great podcasts, but vital spaces for communities rejected, used, and overlooked by other media companies. The necessity and brilliance of shows like Another Round and See Something Say Something make this announcement particularly painful. “So many of our culture podcasts serviced and centered communities of color in a way that the rest of the website struggled with,” Another Round co-host Tracy Clayton says. Reporter Barbara Gonzalez describes Another Round as a podcast that “holds space for people of color, particularly Black women, in a tumultuous time when their peace and livelihood are under attack at every single moment.”
BuzzFeed may claim to value diversity, but in a capitalist market, ideals do not matter without financial backing. BuzzFeed’s willingness to hire a bunch of wildly talented producers — and to allow them to make shows that others would call “niche” or “unmarketable” — mattered. Ending a department that boasted an incredible roster of talented creators, many of whom were women and people of color, hurts not just these individuals but all of us who hope to make a living making stuff online. If BuzzFeed can’t sustain a best-in-class podcast team, we think, who can? If an aspiring producer can’t shoot for a job on the PodSquad, where do we turn instead?
This news follows a summer full of high-profile layoffs at Audible, Panoply, and others, leading many podcasters to worry that their medium is on a downward trajectory. As PodSquad producer Alex Sujong Laughlin said, “The gig economy is coming for all of us.”
These stories punctured my fantasy of a future where companies got it — where they understood the importance of good art, the necessity of hiring diversely, and the value of underwriting industry-changing work that comes from well-resourced and well-rounded teams. Finding a good job in podcasting looks pretty bleak: Producer jobs are hard to get. Internships don’t pay a living wage. Coastal cities dominate the job market, privileging those with greater economic resources. And now, BuzzFeed has gone freelancer-only. Gimlet isn’t the panacea for progressive podcasters that it promised to be. Public media organizations are under-funded, over-worked, and in some cases criminally abusive workplaces.
And yet, I believe that we can make it on our own.
There’s no question that more companies creating more jobs for podcasters will be helpful. Full-time jobs with benefits give creators the stability they need to make great work; institutional buy-in legitimizes our medium and brings corporate budgets to producers’ doors. But convincing companies to take podcasting, and podcasters, seriously is not our only hope.
The road to adequate compensation for creators may start with outrage at BuzzFeed, but it ends in workers’ rights. We need to own the means of production: our own media companies, sources of funding, advertiser relationships, and labor infrastructure. We need healthcare, retirement savings, insurance, childcare, affordable rent, and access to one another. These hurdles are real, powerful, and not coming down any time soon — but they’re not holding us back forever.
Independent producers, studios, networks, production companies, and collectives are leading this industry forward without any institutional backing. Some of us borrow from former BuzzFeed producer Jenna Weiss-Berman’s model at her production company Pineapple Street, sustaining a full-time staff of producers with a combination of paid client work and original podcasts. Some find day jobs and living situations that give them enough spare time to make their show. Others combine ad sales, direct fan support, merchandise sales, live shows, and consulting to balance out a living. The companies will continue to reshuffle and pivot and layoff and expand, but the work will still be done.
And the amount of money advertisers spend on podcasts may be modest, but it is growing. Not all advertisers prioritize data over content or quantity over quality, meaning that smaller shows can get their foot in the door. “With a disproportionate amount of ad dollars going to ad networks in the podcast space, it’s clear that advertisers have to figure out this (not so) new normal, too,” said Krystina Rubino, who leads the offline marketing practice at the growth marketing collective Right Side Up. “Supporting the independent creation of content isn’t just good for the industry, it’s good for business; ads on independent shows with a solid following, purchased on behalf of an advertiser that has a solid product fit with the show, are some of the best performing placements in the medium.”
Next week, I’ll start working in podcasting full-time. I would love a “real” job with benefits that paid me to make cool stuff, or a paid fellowship with no strings attached giving me a year to heal, dream, and make things for myself. I’m bitter as hell that none of those exist, but in my despair, I worked nights, weekends and lunch breaks for three years to build a podcasting hobby into a company. It nearly killed me. But I’m here now, and every ounce of energy I have left at the end of each workday is going toward building a ladder to throw behind me for my peers.
In an environment of scarcity, our brains are wired to grab at whatever we can, and challenge those with more. Every time another podcast gets featured on Spotify, or another production company gets a big corporate client, or a show eerily like mine launches, my “why not me?” monologue starts up again. And every day I have to remind myself how much more useful it is to celebrate, congratulate, elevate, and share. I need to remember how others’ generosity made my career possible, and how a decade of helping my peers for free has set me up to charge clients for my expertise.
I want a one-size-fits-all solution, but none exists quite yet. And now, on top of the 100-hour weeks my peers and I routinely put in at our day jobs and podcasts, we now see the companies that seem to get it failing us. It’s not just BuzzFeed; Gimlet’s prioritization of podcasts with TV/movie adaptation potential over podcasts that are great in their own regard is consistently and deeply disappointing. These companies aren’t making it any easier for independent podcasters to make a living — but they’re not making it much harder than it’s been, either. Our solution always needed to be bigger than corporate support.
Look inward. Find the thing you want to do more than anything else and do it, or if there isn’t any, find someone else whose vision you can midwife into existence. Start podcasts. Apply for grants. Pitch sponsors. Share your knowledge. We have to reinvent the wheel, each of us, as we build tiny empires of our own in group texts, listservs, private chat forums.
And if there’s anything I know about podcasters, it’s this: we are tenacious, scrappy, brilliant; and we’re just getting started.
Thank you to my colleagues at Multitude for supporting me this and every week as we figure out this industry’s future together.