Yes, of course the podcast bubble is bursting

It’s kind of crazy that it took this long

Updated with a statement from Panoply’s PR team.

CJR has a new piece out today called Is the podcast bubble bursting? and the lede pretty much sums up how we got here:

Podcasting was supposed to be one of the saviors of digital media — inexpensive, addicting, profitable, and popular.

I’m not sure who said (or believed) that but lol, no.

Just like with blogging in the early 2000’s, podcasts as we know them were doomed as soon as they went mainstream.

It always starts out with a few intelligent, enterprising people producing something interesting, and ends up with a firehose of content, much of it poor quality — and nowhere near enough hours in the day to consume it all. Not even if you wanted to, which you don’t.

Here’s why the question’s being asked:

Panoply, the podcasting unit set up by Slate magazine, recently laid off most of its staff and says it will now become just a distributor of podcasts rather than the creator of them — despite what appeared to be strong support for its existing podcasts. And on Wednesday, BuzzFeed announced it was also laying off staff at its podcasting unit — the company said it will continue to do podcasts, but won’t have a dedicated team the way it used to, and will now mostly use freelancers rather than staff. Audible, the audio arm of retail giant Amazon, also laid off some stafffrom its podcasting unit recently.

It should come as no surprise that The Slate Group, pioneer of 2000’s blogging, will be among the first to lay off its professional podcasting team. It’s following a model that worked before. Nor should it be a surprise from Buzzfeed — a company that’s so overvalued it has to chase and try to monetize every media trend. (Next, we’ll hear Andreessen Horowitz no longer values Buzzfeed — which just started soliciting donations, a sure sign of decline for a for-profit — at $1 billion. 😂)

But let’s take apart the lede:

  1. Inexpensive: Podcasting may be “inexpensive” compared to an actual professional studio, but it’s still not cheap for anyone who wants to do high quality work. Sure, you can buy a USB mic on Amazon and say things into it, but that’s a lot different from what actual journalism organizations — organizations that demand high quality and require audience trust — needed to do. To get on the podcasting train, lots of small news organizations invested in equipment, in-house studios, and the most expensive thing of all — employee time. Couple that with the fact that it’s hard to generate revenue from podcasts, and you’ve got a labor of love — but labors of love don’t usually pay.
  2. Addicting: Podcasting was perfect for journalism because it let journalists record their thoughts and play them back to themselves. I can see how that might be addicting. Journalists are also on T.V. and radio fairly often, so it made some sense. With all their media options, though, the public never had as much enthusiasm for podcasts. First, only a few million people, at best, ever had the inclination to try podcasting out. Probably a few hundred-thousand of them became bonafide podcast addicts. Second, sure, it can be fun to queue up a series of podcasts, but who honestly has the time? You can only listen to so much shit in a day. I burned out in like 6 months. Back to music.
  3. Profitable: See above.
  4. Popular: See above.

For me, the two biggest problems were always time and quality, which is more or less what Mathew Ingram says in his CJR piece.

Time. To listen to a podcast, you needed to commit actual time.

Podcasts tend to be different from talk radio or music — stuff you can tune out. Even if there was a lot of lowbrow stuff, podcasts were often framed as high-minded. Podcasts for education, deep news analysis, immaculate radio plays. You can’t skim like you might with an article. You can’t cram an hour-long episode. You can’t multitask. You have to concentrate. The average person probably can’t consume more than 1–2 hours of this per day. If every podcast is an hour long and once per week, that means the average person only has room for 7–14 unique shows in their life. What about the thousands of other podcasts in the iTunes Store? Who listens to them? Who pays for them?

Quality. Immediately after the bubble started to grow, quality became the biggest issue.

You might browse to something on the iTunes Store, say “This looks interesting,” and start listening, and the quality sucked. Or you might wonder, “Is what he’s saying even true?” How do I know? You don’t want to be sucked into that whole other bubble — the one of false knowledge. So you turn to established shows. Once again, you’ve limited your options.

Podcasts will probably stick around for a while. The New York Times will keep producing The Daily. The Daily is successful because the Times treated it the way Apple does its products. It didn’t invent the form; it looked at what’s out there and made something better. Other organizations that produce high quality work — and have an audience that wants it — will continue to produce shows as well.

But the bubble? Yeah. Like with blogging, it was the beginning of the end when you first heard about it.

Statement from Panoply’s PR team:

Panoply and Slate are two completely separate, independent companies. Slate has had a successful podcast network since 2005, and Panoply began in 2015. Also, Slate is not leaving the podcast content business in any way, but growing it. This piece leads folks to believe that Slate is getting out of podcasting, which certainly is not the case.
Panoply was built on two different podcast businesses — content and technology. The company has decided to focus exclusively on technology, a decision which is rooted in the strong belief that the future of on-demand audio is podcasting. It is not a lack of confidence in content, it’s a push towards building a better infrastructure for it to ensure it thrives.