Editor’s note: The new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports is out and ready for you to read — go check it out. I write a column for the print edition of the magazine; here’s my one from the new issue.
Podcasting is giving me a case of déjà vu.
The state of podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like the state of blogging circa 2004. The variety and quality of work being done is thrilling; outside attention is growing; new formats are evolving. We’re seeing the same unlocking of creative potential we saw with blogging, and there’s far more good work being produced than anyone has time to take in.
The question now is whether podcasting’s future will play out as the last decade of blogging has. There may be some lessons to be drawn — positive and negative — from how the beautifully fractured world of blogging evolved into what we have today.
And what is that, exactly?
The players are different with audio, but a lot of the same pressure points are the same. Will we someday soon look back on 2015 as the golden age of podcasting, before the market had its way?
Let’s look at those three trendlines one at a time.
If you were somehow sentenced to listen to all the podcasts in iTunes, you’d find a lot of amateurish stuff. With so much dross, quality stands out. The most downloaded shows are a mix of public radio’s weekend magazine shows, smart comedy and storytelling, and well-produced talk.So one move is in the direction of quality. Alex Blumberg, the public radio reporter who left to start Gimlet Media in 2014, describes what he’s trying to build as the “HBO of podcasting.” “We take more time, we spend more money, and we try to hone and craft more than 95 percent of the podcasts out there,” he said earlier this year. “I think podcasting still has an association with something that two dudes make in their basement. There’s a Wayne’s World connotation to it. But I think of them as shows: sleek, produced, where you have people who are good at it doing it.”
Gimlet has built up an acclaimed lineup of podcasts that now regularly land on most-downloaded lists and which have smart integration of advertising. Other companies like Panoply (from the people at Slate) and Midroll (now owned by Scripps) are doing something similar, building up podcast networks that can both professionalize and make more efficient the production of on-demand audio. Gimlet may want to be another HBO, but to my mind, they’re more of an audio Vox Media — marrying content smarts, production skill, and an agile business strategy.
When it comes to platforms, podcasting has been a remarkably open one. All you need is access to a server and you can publish to the world.
I suspect we’re going to see that openness come under pressure soon. Nearly all audio podcasts are MP3 files — the same format that filled up your iPod with Nelly and NSYNC back in the day. Once they’re downloaded, MP3s are opaque from a publisher’s perspective: There’s no way to tell if they’ve been played once, a hundred times, or never. Tracking individual listeners’ habits — seeing what other podcasts they listen to, which ads they skip, or which episodes they bail out of early — is impossible for a podcast producer.
One possible reaction to that: Great! I don’t want some rando podcast bro tracking my activity! But the web has taught us that many people — especially advertisers — want that sort of data, and we can be sure that there will be attempts to harness it.
Doing so would probably require a new format for podcasts — something beyond the MP3. The Swedish startup Acast promises an enhanced podcast experience by integrating images and video at points within an audio podcast — if you listen to certain podcasts within their app. Of course, that complexity can also be used to push more sophisticated advertising; Acast tells companies it can provide “dynamic targeting” of podcast advertising within a given episode.
The optimist’s view of Acast (and other companies entering the space) is that the empty-headed MP3 is limiting what podcasts can do, and that we need to move past it for the field to flourish. The pessimist would note that whatever promising new technology comes along is unlikely to be as open as the RSS-plus-MP3 tech at the core of podcasting. And that could mean private platforms taking over.
Marco Arment, who makes the popular Overcast podcast app for iOS, argues that this coming wave of companies aims to “lock down this open medium into proprietary ‘technology,’ and build empires of middlemen to control distribution and take a cut of everyone’s revenue. That’s how you make Big Money. And it usually works.”
Look to blogging again. In the mid-1990s, if you had a blog, you probably wrote the code for it by hand. By the early 2000s, you likely used a webhost like Blogspot — reducing technical complexity by handing over the backend to a company like Google. Fast forward to today and the vast majority of what would have been considered “blogging” 10 years ago now happens on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Podcasting is open, but it’s also complicated and limited by its technology. Some middleman will come along to improve that — and grab a piece of the business.
So where does this all leave public radio — the part of the business most important to those of us who care about journalism? NPR and its member stations have survived the digital transition better than most news outlets, but its broadcast audience has plateaued and there are troubling signs that it’s losing younger listeners. Podcasts are a piece of that erosion, as commuters use their phones and connected cars to tune into WTF with Marc Maron instead of their local FM morning zoo, or Reply All instead of All Things Considered.
Of course, many of the top-rated podcasts are produced by public radio outfits. But they’re mostly still driven by the demands of terrestrial radio. Shows are an hour long because that’s the only kind of slot available on Saturday afternoons. They’re produced by an expensive infrastructure that’s tied to broadcast. They’re limited in their flexibility, because adding a new radio show at a station usually means removing an existing one. (Any of this sound familiar to print veterans?)There are public radio podcast success stories, of course: Serial most obviously, but also NPR shows like Invisibilia and Hidden Brain. And several of the largest local stations are betting big on podcast production. (In October, WNYC announced a $15 million project called WNYC Studios devoted to developing new podcast programming.)
But it’s not hard to forecast the impact a shift from broadcast to podcast will have on public radio stations. There are over 900 public radio stations in the United States, and most of them are nothing like WNYC — they survive in large part as the best available delivery mechanism for national NPR content. In most markets, public radio stations face little to no real news competition on the dial. If Morning Edition becomes just one among many high-quality options for newsy audio during drivetime, what happens to the rest of their work — and their business model?
In newspapers, a few giants like The New York Times could respond to the challenge by building up top-notch digital teams and competing toe-to-toe with the newcomers. But there are nearly 1,400 daily newspapers in America, and most don’t have the resources, skills, or strategy to keep the attention of their audiences online. For all its successes, podcasts have offered no solution to the crisis of local news. I expect we’ll continue to see the gap between the WNYCs and their smaller public radio peers expand.
The future history I’m outlining isn’t all bad. For the listener, there’ll be more great shows than you know what to do with, just as there’s more quality stuff to read online than ever before. But the same trends we saw 10 years ago — professionalization on one hand, platformization on the other — sure seem to be playing out again. And that promises to disrupt yet another part of the journalism business — for all the good and bad that implies.