A Manifesto For Podcasting In 2019

At the tail-end of 2017, when I was working on the podcasting operation for a magazine here in London, the industry felt like it was at an exciting juncture. For a while, content had been at a consistently high quality (let’s not forget that series one of Serial came out in 2014) and most media organisations had staked a serious amount of capital on the medium’s future. And yet, to me, it always felt like there were unresolved issues around monetisation and advertising integration — and my hope was that Apple’s analytics platform could resolve that. With a more transparent data set and expanding audiences, podcasting would be on the fast-track towards matching the advertising rates set in other parts of the media.

And so I set about starting my own, small, company, Podot, with the intention of making good and interesting podcasts, yes, but also with an eye on an industry that I couldn’t help but feel needed to take itself seriously before others would do the same. As with any small business, paying my bills and feeding my dog has been the №1 priority for the first half-year of existence, but now I’m looking ahead to 2019 and thinking back on the issues that I’ve experienced in 2018, some of which feel ready to be challenged, some of which feel intractable. So here, complete with a rather self-aggrandising title, are my concerns about the industry, and some of the steps I’d like to see taken in 2019.

(Note: I’m based in London and producing podcasts for British audiences. Things might be slightly different for US or other non-Brit producers, or for companies making content for global audiences. But I think the general points roughly hold up.)

The tail still wags the dog

There are two important players in the podcast industry: advertisers and publishers. Because there is no serious (or, perhaps I should say, widespread) mechanism for paywalling content, advertisers represent what would at, say, a magazine, newspaper or on-demand TV channel, also contain paying customers. They’re at one end of the scale.

At the other end are publishers, the content creators and distributors. They are making the product that is being paid for, either by advertising or paid subscriptions. But in the middle of these two actors are the sales agencies. Sales agencies and PR firms exist in every part of the media, lubricating the path for advertisers to find appropriate content to flog their wares against. They are, of course, important, but they are important as a means of facilitating a channel between advertisers and publishers, not as an important, independent actor in the podcasting process.

I suspect the business bods behind most other elements of publishing would be flabbergasted by the amount of leverage sales agencies (we’re talking Acast, Megaphone, AudioBoom…etc) have. That leverage is against both publishers — who are being beaten down by barely sustainable CPMs — and advertisers, who are seeing a small pool of products over-exposed by disinterested publishers. The marriage is terrible, the tail is wagging the dog.

The problem here is that these sales agencies aren’t making out like bandits. If they were, it might be possible for publishers to disrupt the process, try and bring sales in-house or buddy-up with relevant providers. In-truth, these agency/hosts are the companies in podcasting who have the most mainstream (non-content creation) business plans, and yet they haven’t struck oil. It’s amazing that, in the years that dynamic advertising has been sold on podcasts, the prevailing products are still roll-out mattresses, mail-order razors and click-and-go websites. We’ve obviously seen big corporations make a play for the podcast market too — it’s just that having to bounce through these agencies first leaves the advertising dissociated from the content in a way that a more harmonious union of advertiser and publisher would not. And, fundamentally, the disparity between what HSBC, say, would pay for a 15-second TV advert slot against re-runs of Taggart on ITV4 and what they’d pay for a minute long live-read by esteemed journalists on podcasts using dynamic advertising is bizarre and untenable.

The Condorcet paradox

Earlier this year, I wrote about the circular issues facing podcasting and how hard it was to break out of that cycle. One of the keywords from the past year, often floated as an issue with podcasting when I outline the business advantages, is ‘discoverability’. This is an issue with several prongs: how do I find your podcast about cycling when there are several hundred podcasts about cycling to choose from? How do I concentrate my business with a distributor when there are so many players in the game (Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts, TuneIn…etc)? And who’s offering a curation process that acts as a gatekeeper to good content, allowing amateurish and bad content to flow away on the tides of the internet, and good, independent produce to be platformed?

I recently learn the term ‘Condorcet paradox’ and, even though it’s not in any way applicable, I’m going to use it here. Condorcet problems are where non-cyclic preferences present as cyclic because of human subjectivity — I want A rather than B, B rather than C, and C rather than A. It underlines the fickleness of human preferences and the difficulty of arriving at a solution that works for every dog in the fight.

The simple fact is that the easiest podcasts to find are the most popular ones. All the discoverability mechanisms that are codified into the distribution operations for podcasts — the iTunes chart, Spotify discover, YouTube recommended — are self-propelling. Apple does something to address this issue by making the algorithm that governs its chart unfathomable, and wildly favouring new podcasts. But the problem persists and there is very little engagement from the team at Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever with indie publishers. I’m not that worried about the successes or failures of people trying to game the charts (which I know has vexed people lately) because because I sympathise with that sense of desperation. There is something tragically poetic about having ten thousand bots listen to your podcast so that a few humans might listen to it after them…

The bigger issue is that people are making successful podcasts, rather than making podcasts that prove to be successful. People in filmmaking, and online video production particularly, used to scoff at advertisers or commissioners who sought to make a ‘viral video’. A viral video, they would say, isn’t something that you make — you make the video and it goes viral. I always liked that adage, but it doesn’t feel true of podcasts. It feels like successful podcasts are released as successful podcasts, whether that’s via the cachet of a publication or media organisation, the presence of a celebrity, or well-PRed word-of-mouth that greets episode one. I see podcasts with 100s of episodes and 1000s of listeners — listeners who tune in week after week — which are still hard to value because they are so impenetrable to non-listeners, non-subscribers. And then I see podcasts with 1 episode and a №1 ranking on iTunes and tens or hundreds of thousands of listeners, and that’s when I start thinking about Mr Condorcet and his paradox.

The problem is that most podcasts aspire to be the former. You keep plugging away at your show in the hope that the listener base increases. But when all the existing discovery mechanisms favour shows that are i) new, and ii) already popular, the chances of being found actually slip with every new bit of content you release. This is a system where endurance and loyalty are not rewarded but actively punished. The issue of curation and gatekeeping is one thing — and I think it needs to be tackled and lots of publications are doing great work in increasing the profile of indie podcasts — but the fact remains that as podcasters we are indentured to the existing system of distribution. Every year we see more challengers to Apple Podcasts but, ultimately, the hegemony of Apple prevails (and hey, they don’t call them podcasts for nothing). But sweating for discoverability there is a nonsense — and it’s equally frustrating to see competitors like Google Podcasts, Spotify and TuneIn arriving and establishing discoverability systems that are essentially status quo. It’s frustrating. We desperately need a way to make podcasts popular, rather than make popular podcasts.

Easy as B B C…

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the BBC this year, probably as much time as I’ve spent listening to their shows. The BBC, for those not based in the UK, is our national broadcaster which, this year, launched the BBC Sounds app, a holistic vision for the corporation’s on-demand audio. They appointed a commissioning editor for podcasts (Jason Phipps from the Guardian) and released guidelines on their budgets for commissioned content from podcast production companies.

On one hand, this is a really healthy sign. The podcast, as a medium, is being taken seriously by a company of the size and reputation of the BBC, not to mention the budgets being offered will sustain those ProdCos who can get into Auntie’s nourishing bosom. That’s all well and good. My issue is, to an extent, a philosophical one — does the state have a responsibility to SMEs (small, medium-sized enterprises)? And when the scale of state-funded enterprise actively endangers SMEs, what then?

The response is obviously that I’m being paternalistic and that the money being ploughed into the BBC ought only to spur independent publishers on to produce better content. Let’s say the Neilsen polling in the US translates to the UK (which it demonstrably doesn’t) and 19% of adults listen to podcasts on a weekly basis — of that 19% a smaller section are what we might term ‘avid listeners’, or people for whom podcasts constitute a large part of their media consumption. Those people, according to Edison research that seems fairly common sense to me, are likely to subscribe to about 6 shows (which is quite a lot when you think of it as a menu of, say: a news show, a politics show, a comedy show, a sports show, a true crime show, and a culture show). But that means that the real estate available to indie publishers is small and competitive. And the BBC is capable of putting out a politics show that gets higher profile politicians than my politics show, a film show that gets higher profile guests than my film show, a sports show that…etc. We’ve already seen how effectively they recycle their radio material (Desert Island Discs, Archers, Friday Night Comedy and Woman’s Hour all appeared on the iTunes Most Downloaded of 2018) and it’s clear their podcasts will be a very disruptive presence in 2019 — just look at the way The Peter Crouch Podcast has blown open the incredibly competitive world of football (soccer) podcasts since it launched in September.

A final note on the BBC: as a rule, I don’t pay guests on my podcasts. They’re there for work or to promote something, and is a fairly well recognised exchange and no-one who agrees to come on complains. This week I had a guest who, on the morning of recording, asked for a car to bring him to the studio. Of course, I said, and booked it. I’ve worked at a magazine before and we always sent cars to and from the recording — and not Ubers, nice estate cars with drivers in suits. The BBC also does this, and has a long line of black Mercedes-Benzs that snake around New Broadcasting House. It means absolutely nothing to them to send cars to and from HQ. The car cost me £20 (thankfully he only asked for it one-way) but had I sent it there and back, for £40, that would have made it very tricky for me to pay myself an acceptable day-rate for that show. That’s how fine the margins are for me on an independent, advertiser-funded project. This isn’t even about the fees (the BBC pays all radio/TV contributors roughly £100–300), it’s about the fact that booking, or not booking, a cab is a business decision for me, and for organisations like the BBC it’s as complicated as hailing a driver and programming a GPS.

(For BBC read whatever the state broadcaster of your country is, or major news/media organisations in your territory (if the government isn’t kind enough to fund journalism)).

Solutions for 2019:

Let me end on an optimistic note, by offering some thoughts on where things could be productive in 2019.

– I think that if a series of key podcasts currently taking their advertising revenue from middle-men (Acast, AudioBoom, Megaphone, whatever) said ‘ok, we no longer want to run advertising at this CPM for a few months’ then it would force a change. And the thing is, advertisers need to start paying more. I don’t and won’t feel bad that these host/agents are in financial jeopardy themselves, when they are setting the industry standard for advertising rates and setting it so low it is barely visible from my eye-line.

– Clearly indie publishers need to be more transparent with one another about how they’re funding their shows, and what their income and outgoings are. It’s painful to make financial disclosures, especially to peers and in an industry this precarious, but I think it’s necessary. There have been real attempts — at least here in the UK — to publicise what a decent day-rate for a producer is, and what different companies pay. But beyond that, for those of us who are looking to take the publishing, as well as producing, by the scruff of the neck, we need to be more open.

– Established and prestige media organisations need to lead the way in revaluing the market here. I find it bizarre to listen to huge publications playing crappy programmatic advertising or lifeless live-reads for companies that should be paying £1000s for that space. There is a paradox here (also not a Condorcet one; maybe not even a paradox) because media organisation advertising departments are i) struggling, and cutting staff left, right and centre, ii) continuing to invest 95% of personnel resources in print and digital advertising deals, and iii) ignoring or sitting on a rich vein of potential advertiser space in podcasting. But because of i) and because of the strategic focus on ii) the likelihood of iii) has become even more scarce. The more publications struggle for print/online advertisers, the more pressure they put on dwindling advertising teams to deliver, the more likely it is that podcasts will be ignored. If you are a rich publication with boundless staff — value your podcast advertising space along the same lines as you would value a half-page print ad, and we’ll all benefit from a recalibration of advertiser expectations.

– Podcasters are natural evangelists for podcasting. There needs to be more room for scepticism at the level of creatives. Being hard-nosed and business-minded can make you seem like a dick in a room full of people who are, essentially, journalists or artists, but an industry that can’t afford to pay its way is not going to be a diverse or innovative industry. Like most parts of the media, podcasting has issues with being very male, and very white male at that, but this isn’t going to be addressed until it’s a financially viable pursuit for those who can’t afford expensive hobbies or elaborate career risks.

– At the risk of advocating for the very unfashionable idea of ‘sponcon’, podcasting needs to be more open to advertiser models that aren’t as simple as either ‘bung a 30-second live read for Land Rover at the start of the show’ or ‘produce a 30-minute episode on why you need to buy a tricked out Land Rover’. There is a middle-ground where advertisers are involved in the creative genesis but allow editorial independence for the sake of creating a more listener-friendly product. For me, this editorially-independent-advertiser-inputted (EI-AI, catchy) system is going to be, in the short term, how good shows get made and good producers get paid.

And a few more pithy points:

– If it’s a hobby, it’s a hobby. If it ceases to be a hobby, seek professional help (from a ProdCo and/or a therapist).

– If it’s not a hobby: get paid or have a business plan. We all need portfolio or shop-window work, and we make a capital investment to do that. If you’re making a show that isn’t generating revenue and isn’t showcasing your paid-for services, why are you doing it?

– Challenge your advertisers. Does the rate they’re offering, at the very least, match the price they’d pay Facebook for dogs**t advertising to bots? Do they still have a half-page advert in a local newspaper, read by 20,000 people, that they’re paying 10x your price for?

– Smart speakers are going to be a cool way of disseminating podcasts. A lot of producers think of content in terms of commuters — can you listen to an episode in the time of an average train ride? Does it help people prep for work or distract them on the way home? Can you physically hear it over the noise of a train? — and I think, in 2019, smart speaker users will probably be the next consumption demographic to get tailoring attention.

– We’re part of an industry and we need to behave more industrially. Low-pricing for advertisers hurts everyone; as does underpricing the costs of production work. This whole industry needs to inflate its pricing and if you’re undercutting others now, you’re undercutting yourself long term.

– Rethink the concept of a podcast. What does a non-Apple podcasting world look like? The medium is still, after 15 years, being refined, and if there’s a better way to distribute discoverable content it’ll be great for everyone (and make someone very rich).

There were some pieces positioning 2018 as a make-or-break year for podcasting, and I feel like I’m seeing very similar pieces about 2019. I think the reality is that podcasting is now an established industry that will be around for years, if not decades, to come. Technology will change the way we make podcasts and the way they’re listened to, and with that will likely come some formal changes. I think that will be a slow, evolutionary process over the coming years, moving at a glacial pace rather than in the leaps and bounds that some commentators predict.

But what 2019 can be is a year where podcasting gets aggressive as an industry. Print advertising is dying. Online advertising is dying. Advertisers and publishers alike are losing confidence in traditional models. For too long the recognised media hierarchy has had a straw in podcasting’s milkshake, sucking it down, because suppressing podcasting’s rates and reputation has meant that advertisers have continued to overvalue and rely upon the frothing foam of historic conventions. So 2019 can, and should, be the year that podcasting drinks their milkshake.

More about my podcasts on the Podot website.

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