This week I received an email to my work inbox (I daren’t allow the word ‘podcast’ to enter the private sanctum of my personal inbox) with the simple subject line: The total number of available podcasts is now 700,000*.
That was shortly followed up by a news story out of Radiodays Europe, where the BBC said they expect podcast consumption to quadruple in the next two years. Now, in a perfect world, consumption would rise exponentially, whilst production would stagnate, offering the industry a modicum of stability, but I suspect that won’t be the case. If there are 700k podcasts already (according to Chartable CEO Dave Zohrob), that number is sure to break a million in the next year.
The size of the industry makes me anxious, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are very few trusted gatekeepers for podcasting, so those who have cracked that code have a very iced position on the cupcake. Discoverability — that hated word — means that you have 699,000 podcasts that are swimming in a sea of low listenership, no marketing budget, little chance of success, but a lot of noise. So podcasting, industrially, remains this big mass of predominantly hobbyist content that sets the reputation for everything, despite the fact that it’s pretty impenetrable to outside listeners. It’s like if when people thought of ‘online journalism’, their thoughts rushed to weirdconspiracynonsense.blogspot.tk. Here’s a crudely photoshopped cupcake to substantiate this metaphor:
So, I was feeling pretty stressed about that when I saw a podcast producer on Twitter bragging about the fact that they had ten new shows launching in the next couple of weeks. As far as I could tell, these were just independently made shows by a single producer, possibly for clients. Now, putting aside the fact that, at that level of output, I’m not sure how you can do good or sustainable work, that’s just so much content entering the ecosystem. Should we feel good about that? The content pond is getting bigger and bigger, but shallower and shallower. If production increases at the same rate as consumption (and I suspect it will increase much faster) then we’re looking at quite static growth for most podcasters over the next few years, as well as an inevitable homogenising around ‘trusted top content’. This is unhealthy; bad algae in the pond.
And the third thing that’s wigging me out, of late, is the extent to which host-led shows are dominating the market. Here in the UK, we’ve seen the launch of new programming hosted by people like David Tennant, Peter Crouch, and James Acaster smash into the top of the charts. It is the most bankable shortcut to success. The problem with this is that it privileges producers or companies with capital, be that social capital in terms of having the connections to bring in top talent, or financial capital in terms of the original outlay of hiring them. And this is an issue that will only become more pressing as the currency of podcasting strengthens — we’ve seen with the launch of Luminary, that more and more A-listers are seeing podcasting as a cheap, effective way of increasing their audience base, like Twitter or Instagram before, for which they are now actually getting paid quite big bucks. So as more and more experienced and famous broadcasters muck into podcasting, the idea of a self-made podcast producer/host is going to get increasingly alien. Even at my own level, I’m now reluctant to launch anything without making sure that I have a host who is a marketing tool, as well as a production one.
When I first started my own podcast business, I would tell people that one of the good things about podcasts is that (and I’m not sure of this as a metaphor) “it’s like flinging mud at a wall”. If it sticks, great (you’ve got mud on your wall?), but if it slides off, you can just throw some more mud. Start ten podcasts and you might find one or two worth continuing, the rest can be consigned to history. And whilst I still agree with the logic of what I was saying, it worries me a bit that I, and so many others, have this mentality.
When I pitch to clients, be they potential corporate publishers or potential advertisers, I have to give a realistic idea of audience size in an over saturated market. If they think 10,000 people might listen to a show where they flog their own wares, and you don’t disabuse them of that notion, you’re doing yourself, and the entire industry, a disservice. For the former, I make no promises; for the latter, I do everything I can to avoid a price-per-listen agreement. You simply have no idea who’s about to drink your milkshake. You might work for months on a new podcast about naked cycling, only to discover that, on eve of launch, NPR is launching it’s new 10-part naked cycling podcast hosted by Jennifer Lawrence. Predicting audience size, or share, is increasingly a mug’s game in the unregulated wilderness of podcasting.
Are there too many podcasts? Probably. I have certainly always argued that there are too many unsustainable podcasts. Consumption, production and advertiser spend have to, at the very least, grow proportionately. We are shortly going to have millions of podcasts, out there in the universe, most of which will be listened to by the host, his mum, and his stepdad’s dog. The path to success is becoming ever more rarefied, and the true heart of podcasting is in danger of being pushed into a counter-cultural, guerilla role in the very medium that it has championed from the off.
What we need:
- More gatekeepers, especially those that are able to draw together disparate content that they do not necessarily own.
- Celebrities to just chill out a bit. You don’t need a podcast. Start a vlog, or take up knitting.
- A psychological shift amongst corporates away from self-owned content, towards advertising.
- I suppose, and it’s hard, producers to not just cycle endless low-budget content out into world.
- A distribution mechanism exclusively for curated, professionally produced content.
*It was the excellent PodNews newsletter. Subscribe here.