Three Ways To Survive Podcasting’s Existential Crisis

Tom Webster
Aug 29 · 13 min read
Image credit: “Boston Skyline,” Tom Webster, 2019

Podcasting has had a pretty significant year. But I have to tell you about a question I have gotten an alarming number of times from journalists over the past few months: Are we at “Peak Podcasting?” I am sure you have some opinions about that. I’ll share mine at the end. But here’s what I can tell you — peak or not, it has changed because the audience has changed.

Last year, I wrote a manifesto for growth which posited that in order to get the next batch of listeners — I called them “The 52,” for the 52 million more weekly listeners the medium needs to get to an even 100 — we would have to do things differently, because these will be different people than the ones the medium has already attracted. In other words, what got us here, is not going to get us there. This year, in a recent keynote at Podcast Movement, we put some data behind that assertion.

Podcasting has been around long enough that even though I think we are still in the early innings, there are now rookies and veterans. To examine the differences between the two, we fielded a 1,000-person online study which we weighted to our Infinite Dial numbers for podcast listeners. We also conducted a series of in-person interviews with Rookies — people who have been listening for less than six months — and Veterans — people who have been listening to podcasts for at least three years and in many cases much longer. And we found some amazing contrasts, some of which will be immediately apparent in this video:

(Spoiler alert: Dirty John was real.) You can already sense that there are some critical differences between Rookies and Veterans, but of course, we wouldn’t be Edison if we didn’t try and put some quantitative data behind that.

First of all, the demographics of Rookies and Veterans are pretty dissimilar. When we first started tracking podcast listeners back in 2006, the composition of podcast listeners was about 2/3 male, 1/3 female, and that percentage is very neatly reflected in the gender balance of the Veterans from our online survey. But today, thanks to a greatly expanded content palette, the balance is shifting the other way, and those who have come only recently to podcasts are more likely to be female. GOOD JOB, LADIES.

Also, the rookies tend to be quite a bit younger than the vets. This is generally true for any kind of rookie, but in the case of podcasting, I think you can’t underestimate the impact of the streaming services here — Pandora and in particular Spotify have had a significant impact on exposing podcasts to their younger audiences. More on that in a moment.

Veterans, unsurprisingly, spend more time listening — podcasting has had longer to filter into their DNA, and they’ve had more time to find shows they love. But the numbers here for rookies are pretty respectable — they aren’t just listening to one show a week, unless that show is Hardcore History.

Rookies are consuming a lot of content from a variety of sources (not just podcasts), which may make them a little less patient to get through long shows. They are 50% more likely to say that they ever speed up content. I always look at this number as a kind of warning sign. (I don’t speed up content. If I feel the urge to do so, it’s probably because I’m not enjoying the show — food for thought.)

You get an even deeper window into the soul of rookies with this incredible stat: While 71% of Veterans tell us that they typically listen to all of a typical podcast, only 41% of rookies say the same thing. So they are speeding up content, and they are bailing on more content that isn’t hooking them. What we are seeing in the Rookies is a generation of new listeners that don’t necessarily have short attention spans, but they haven’t grown up as fans of the medium. Many of us who have been listening to podcasts for over a decade are fans of the medium, the tech, the whole gestalt of podcasting. But these newcomers? To them, a podcast is just another way to get content. They are in it for the show, not the medium.

And as a part of that, a far greater percentage of rookies are strictly “on-demand” listeners to podcasts. While more than 6 in 10 Veterans tell us they ever download shows to listen to later, the percentage of rookies who ever do this is closer to 4 in 10. This tells you that fewer Rookies “plan” their podcast content, and more of them are just grabbing it in the moment — which makes Google surfacing episode-level search results even more important when we consider this new generation of listeners.

The higher propensity to “on-demand” listening really shows up here — the average number of shows each subscribe to. While Vets subscribe to nearly five shows on average, rookies subscribe to about two. Now, of course, much of this may be due to just length of exposure, but we shouldn’t assume that the rookie average will go up over time, because these aren’t the same people as the vets. They have a more casual relationship with podcasts, and that isn’t necessarily just a function of time.

And that more casual relationship is evident when we examine the differences in how both groups discover content. And I think the best way to sum up the difference is to say that Veterans seek podcasts, while Rookies encounter podcasts. Here’s how:

You can see here that Veterans are more likely than rookies to say that they discover content through recommendations from hosts, and also from their friends — which means, of course, that they know other people who listen to podcasts and they are seeking out new content to listen to.

The Rookies, on the other hand, are more likely to say that they “encounter” content in the wild and they are finding that content on platforms that didn’t even feature podcasts five years ago, or appreciably even two years ago in some cases. The Veterans are more likely to listen on podcast websites, which is supported by another key difference: Veterans were more likely than Rookies to say their primary listening device was their desktop or laptop computer.

But look at the numbers here especially for Spotify and Pandora, which technically aren’t giving you a podcast, are they? And Rookies are twice as likely to say Soundcloud, which is a platform that doesn’t actively support podcasters so much — but they do support listeners, and that’s a distinction I’ll come back to.

Last year I talked about the importance of The Show — the necessity to put on an entertainment. Putting on a show means that you know as much about your audience as you do about your topic, and every choice you make is in service of that audience.

First of all, as you may have already figured out from the videos, Rookies and veterans alike are telling us that they are consuming podcasts in all kinds of random places. While Rookies are slightly more likely to say they are getting podcasts from places like social media and YouTube, both groups exhibit this behavior to a reasonably high degree, which you will see in the video below.

In many cases (though the lines are blurry), we would agree with them, I think, that they are listening to a podcast. Take Joe Rogan, for instance — the Joe Rogan show, one of the top podcasts in America, is also uploaded to YouTube, and Rogan’s millions of views represent a lot of eyeballs and earballs. You may not consider this a podcast, but many of his listeners do. We have all worked hard over the years to socialize the term “podcast,” and I am not sure this is the hill we want to die on now. You might be interested in educating people about RSS enclosures, but this is not my business.

One of the people in the video above was a woman who was crazy for the Nurse Blake podcast. Nurse Blake is an RN who has turned into a thing I did not know we had since Florence Nightengale — a celebrity nurse. He has over a million social followers and over 200 million views on his youtube videos. Nurse Blake even does his own cruise, where nurses can get continuing education credits while on a giant floating Applebee’s. In fact, this might be the only cruise I would ever consider — it would be reassuring to know that while spending a week on a seaborne petri dish for Norovirus, I’ll be surrounded by nurses.

Here’s the thing, though. Nurse Blake does not have a podcast. There is no podcast listed on his site. He is not in the various podcast apps. There is no RSS feed. You can take two things from this. First, Nurse Blake is, figuratively at least, missing the boat. He SHOULD turn this content into a podcast. And second, unless you want to get into an argument with this nice woman we talked to about what is and isn’t a podcast, the lines are getting REALLY blurry.

In fact, the whole space is being rapidly disrupted. Today we have podcasts on YouTube, which aren’t podcasts because they aren’t downloadable. And streaming audio platforms like Spotify and Pandora are becoming significant players in the space — again, with non-downloadable content. And increasingly, new listeners are finding podcasts on social platforms like Instagram and Facebook. But in August 2019, podcasting was disrupted on an existential level by a radio company.

iHeartMedia, the nation’s largest terrestrial broadcaster, is going to add podcasts to 270 of its radio stations in a feature called Sunday Night Podcasts. Soon, millions of Americans will become introduced to podcasts as…a radio show. This one isn’t going back into the bottle, folks. NOW try explaining to your father-in-law what a podcast is. I’ll wait here. And I say this with all the love I can muster: If the Ron Burgundy show gets, say, 10 million unique downloads a month, and another 10 million estimated unique listeners on terrestrial radio, there is no question in my mind that it’s going to be sold as a “podcast” that reaches 20 million a month. Playing podcasts on the radio may “normalize” the term for a new audience, but it also destroys its magic. If a podcast isn’t even on-demand, it’s just another radio show — nothing new, nothing special.

All of which renders oft-repeated calls to action like “subscribe to us on iTunes,” anachronistic at best, and dangerous at worse. Ten years ago, your audience may have seemed to you like sheep who have grazed in the pasture of your content and are now waiting for a helpful Border Collie to herd them gently into the pen marked “iTunes.” But today’s audiences are not sheep.

They are feral hogs, rampaging from Spotify to Facebook to YouTube, digging through your turnips, and experiencing the content exactly how THEY want to experience content. Because here is the central truth:

You have never been in control. The audience is in control. They always have been.

Some have evolved their call-to-action over the years to be “check us out/subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts,” which reads to me like a cry for help. Because if “wherever you got your podcasts” for a potential new listener is Instagram, or YouTube, or Soundcloud, is your podcast even there?

In short, the podcasting space is becoming…messy. And it’s not going to get neater as more and more podcast content ends up in decidedly non-podcast places. Which brings me to this existential question: what even IS a podcast? I have thought about this — a lot. There are a couple of ways this question can be parsed.

First, there is the strict, traditionalist view: A podcast can only be delivered as an enclosure using RSS in an open system. And I’m sympathetic to that definition. But it is a producer-based definition. Hitching your wagon to an RSS-based definition is fraught with peril because that’s a format-based definition. Here are some other formats: 8-track, minidisc, VHS, Beta, Blu-Ray. You see where I am going with this. Formats die. RSS will, too, I can confidently say. It’s already fading from view.

The other extreme is this definition: a podcast is any on-demand content that calls itself a “podcast.” I’m not sure I buy that one either. We have to draw a line somewhere, I think. It’s what separates us from the animals.

So here is where I have settled, in two parts:

1. If you can access it on a podcast client, it’s a podcast.

2. The podcast is a subset of The Show.

I think the job of the podcast producer, first and foremost, is to put on a show. The podcast may be the primary manifestation of that, yes, but in order to not get drowned out and maximize your chances of getting heard in this very confusing new era of podcasting, I think we need to consider “the podcast’ just one subset of what your real job is — to produce a SHOW, and your charge is to put the show anywhere and everywhere that it can be encountered.

So I want to leave you with a simple, 3-part model to increase your chances of success and get heard in this crazy new era of big, fuzzy podcasting.

  1. The first is just table stakes: BE where they are. And that means doing the work to put your content anywhere and everywhere it can be encountered. I’ll give you an example — I am in several Facebook groups for podcasters, and I see channels like Soundcloud get panned by hosts and producers for various technical and support reasons. Maybe those things are true. But 12% of rookies told us they have listened to podcasts on there. So regardless of the fences that YOU, the producers, try to build, there’s the audience, those rampaging feral hogs, on Soundcloud, digging up the turnips. And you can substitute any number of similar services that are not producer-friendly. You don’t matter in that equation.

What that means to you is that all of these channels we are talking about are not spokes that drive to a hub. The feral hogs aren’t going to be herded anywhere. So if you are putting your content on YouTube, you need to be a YouTuber. You need to get people to subscribe THERE and have a plan to extract the value of that audience THERE. A YouTube video may not be a podcast. But it is every bit as much a part of the show as your podcast.

The audience is out there. You won’t attract them. You won’t pull them to your site, or to subscribe to you on your favorite podcast client. You have to put success in your way, BE where they are, LIVE where they are, and have a plan to LOVE where they are.

And so I return to the question I begin this piece with: Are we at “peak podcasting?” If you haven’t guessed, I find the question ludicrous. There are, what, about 700,000 podcasts out there? Last year alone, there were more than one million SELF-PUBLISHED books out there. I’m not even counting books from publishers. If we are at “peak podcast,” then we hit “peak book” back in 1898. I think we’re good. But we have some work to do to survive and thrive in the next era of podcasting.

We are only at Peak Podcasting if we are at Peak Effort. And I know that you, and I, have a lot more to give.

So let’s give it. Let’s put on a show.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +526K people. Follow to join our community.

Tom Webster

Written by

SVP, Edison Research. Co-author of The Infinite Dial, The Podcast Consumer, The Social Habit, and other widely cited studies. Other half of @tamadear.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +526K people. Follow to join our community.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade