Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

“My fear is that the ecosystem we have invested in all these years will start to resemble the vanity publishing marketplace or the guy selling CDs out of the trunk of his car after gigs: a place that’s easy to publish into, but rarely yields a significant audience.”

Growing up is hard and often messy.

2016 was the year that the decade-old podcasting industry grew up. How so? It professionalized. Outfits like Gimlet, Midroll, Panoply, Wondery, and to some degree my own company, Audible, are feeling less “startup-y,” and showing signs of maturing into viable media production companies. Notice I didn’t call them “podcasters.” That’ll be part of the problem in 2017 for small and mid-sized podcasters.

eric-nuzumAs I watch the podcast industry mature, I see parallels with the early music industry. For much of its life, the music industry followed a cycle: Passionate entrepreneurs started independent labels, and some grew successful. Most of those successful indies were bought by corporations and absorbed…but not all. There were some small indie labels that remained small. Those who happily remained small felt that the trade-off balanced in their favor: While they lacked the distribution and marketing muscle of a major label, they were free to call their own shots and decide their own futures. But for the unhappily small…they just feel left out.

The smartest players in the music industry (a small number of people, admittedly) realized they were in the music industry, not the 45 single, LP, CD, or digital download industry. Those who survived did so because they were quickest to acknowledge that they needed to be everywhere. And, ironically, it was often the smaller, scrappier labels who figured that out first.

2017 will be the year that podcasting stratifies into hard layers, the year of distinction between major label and indie label. 2017 will be the point where what divides these two layers will be more relevant than what unites them.

The professionalized podcasters (and I’d lump bigger legacy media orgs like NPR, WNYC, ESPN, and HowStuffWorks in there too) will see a lot of payoff for their efforts this year to produce better metrics and analytics, better discovery pathways, more sophisticated advertising tech, and (this will be the most impactful move) to direct as much listening away from the RSS/iTunes ecosystem as possible and into their own app experience, other platforms, and access points. That’s a smart play for them. When you rely on one distribution channel, your fortunes are inevitably linked to the fortunes of that platform. However, another result is that they will seem less and less like “podcasters.”

What does stratification mean to the little guys? Lately I’ve heard a lot of laments from smaller, independent podcasters that it’s getting really hard to keep up. The strategic struggles of a Midroll or Panoply feel less and less applicable to them. And that’s okay, as long as they feel their independence works in their favor. But I don’t think that will be the norm.

With the big publishers slowly evolving out of the space, what happens to the overall iTunes/RSS-centric podcast traffic? My fear is that the ecosystem we have invested in all these years will start to resemble the vanity publishing marketplace or the guy selling CDs out of the trunk of his car after gigs: a place that’s easy to publish into, but rarely yields a significant audience. Which means we’re just making it harder for our industry’s indies to grow into future hitmakers.

Eric Nuzum is senior vice president for original content development at Audible.

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