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Nov. 5, 2019, 10:11 a.m.

As Hot Pod turns 5, these are the problems podcasters are most frustrated by

The podcast industry is bigger, richer, more professionalized, and more corporate than when Hot Pod launched five years ago today. Here are the worries that’ll need to be addressed in the next five years.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 233, dated November 5, 2019.

A note from Nick. Five years ago on this day — literally, November 5, 2014 — I published the first issue of this newsletter. (Lord, it hurts just to look at it.) And for one reason or another, I haven’t stopped publishing the damn thing since, through major life changes and tragedies, professional disasters and upswings, days where I have a spring in my step and the many more days where it’s painful to simply get out of bed.

Unexpectedly, this newsletter has become the anchor of my professional and creative life. To honor the half-decade of that fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my immense gratitude for the extended Hot Pod family (in addition to my actual family, which goes without saying): the folks at Nieman Lab for their long-standing syndication and friendly support; Caroline Crampton for her excellent work since joining the team last summer; Aude White, our most recent addition, for her glorious illustrations; absolutely everybody who’s offered me advice, mentorship, and sharp criticism over the past five years; and, of course, you, the reader. There have been hard days and bad mistakes, but on the whole, it’s been a fun ride.

This is usually the point in one of these things where the reflecting writer, in this case me, makes some positive and hopeful gesture about the days to come. “It’s been a great five years, here’s to five more,” or some pablum like that. But I’m afraid I lack the disposition to say that with any conviction. I mean, I hope I’ll still be here working on this space in one form or another; after all, despite and because of everything, I still really love this shit. But you can never really know about tomorrow, you know? The media business — along with just about everything around it — has never felt more precarious, and I’m deeply cognizant that the fate of this publication can turn on a dime, perhaps even less.

Whatever happens, though, I hope you know this: It’s been a privilege to serve this community, and for what it’s worth, I’ve tried my best.

Anyway, as you can probably guess by now, I’m not the sort of person who would use one of these anniversary issues to run some hazy retrospective highlighting all the stuff this newsletter has done over the past five years. I’d rather look forward, and down at the mud. So, for the occasion, I’m running with something much closer to my DNA: a special package featuring your gripes and frustrations.

Festivus, for the rest of us. Over the past month, we’ve been running a call for opinions built around a fairly straightforward question: “What are you most frustrated by?” (With respect to the podcast industry, of course.) To put it mildly, folks obliged.

Let me start by establishing what I tried to do this with this piece. Editorially, the goal was to lay out various clusters of frustrations being felt by a cross-section of the Hot Pod readership — at least, to the best that I could with the format I’ve chosen. Creatively, the idea of the format is to communicate what it feels like to live with my inbox and various messaging accounts. That’s pretentiously phrased, but you’ll see what I mean soon enough.

Some reading notes:

  • Different chunks represent different people, in case it isn’t clear.
  • The sections marked as “Deep Dives” represent entries from a single contributor who took the time to lay out an extensive, effectively written submission.
  • For practical reasons, I’m not publishing every response — so don’t take it personally if you don’t see yours.
  • In adherence to the retweets ≠ endorsements principle, I don’t necessarily agree with what’s being printed. The point is to illustrate that person’s truth.
  • Almost everybody requested anonymity. So for simplicity’s sake, I decided to implement blanket anonymity for all responses, including from those who listed their names.
  • There were a handful of very specific frustrations, which I’m setting aside for now to vet as leads for future columns.

All right, enough windup. To the question: What are you most frustrated by?

Part One

The rise of big money podcast companies and their treatment of content creators. It harkens back to they way major labels took advantage of young artists in the ’70s. Bad contracts explicitly designed to take advantage of podcast creators who don’t have the resources or knowledge to fully understand every detail of the contract. No aspect of the industry is immune.

The saturation of the market by VC-funded companies that never need to make a profit, squeezing out anyone who is trying to run a normal business. You know, like every industry now.

That podcasting has gone Hollywood. There is such an opportunity to stay true and fresh, unique and genuine, without requirements and how-to’s along with celebrity endorsements.

It’s 98 percent fucking boring, and even worse, most of the industry is built on the mindset of tech entrepreneurship, which is quick-buck speculative capitalism based on potential and not real value. This means the industry is inherently geared towards overwork and shitty treatment of people. There’s so much disjunct between working conditions and the general public-facing “golden age” vibe.

The emphasis on SCALE. Not everything is scalable, nor should it be! This is maybe a broader issue in media, or the entire economy, but it does feel like we’re heading toward a place where there’s a stark line between the haves and the have-nots, where you can only survive if you have a huge audience and the ability to execute a diversified monetization strategy. Idk, maybe we’re already in that place?

I’m frustrated that an increasing number of creators are choosing to take the (relatively) easy cash and putting so much of their content behind paywalls and on specific platforms. Of course, I understand the appeal and concede that it’s hard to get mad about individual people and teams getting paid for their hard work and lending their voices and good names to the medium, but I can’t help but feel that each otherwise-appealing show I learn about whose access is restricted in some way moves us further away from the broad accessibility I’ve long found such an appealing aspect of the podcast ecosystem.

Lots of focus (in terms of news and infrastructure) on large and well-funded podcasts and podcasting entities, and a bit on the just-starting-out and hobbyist end of the spectrum, but very, very little on the mid-range offerings that are not part of established networks.

Not getting paid on time.

The podcast advice world is chaotic, at best. Everyone’s an expert.

The difficulty of reaching larger audiences (while many mediocre podcasts have huge listener numbers).

It is so hard to get people to know my show exists. I’ve tried everything to boost my numbers…it’s so hard to promote yourself above the sea of podcasts, especially if you’re not a new buzzy show. I have about 60,000 listeners, which was a great number to have in 2016 or 2017 when I was considered a mid-sized show that could reliably get ads. But my numbers have stagnated for years as new shows are cropping up every day with celebrity hosts or major networks promoting them.

I find that the advertisers are consolidating their ad spend with fewer and fewer agencies and fewer and fewer networks, leaving mid-sized networks in a really tough spot.

Weak-ass ad sales across the board.

The ads! So many pods have ads that are so, so bad. Even pods that should know better. Too many ads in too short a time, fakey FM-radio-sounding ad reads, ads for extremely evil companies in that are in direct conflict with the mission of the pod, even sped-up audio sometimes. LOOKING AT YOU, THE DAILY.

CPM being the standard for advertising rates.

Lack of ways to monetize expensive shows to produce (and by the way traditional CPM model doesn’t take into consideration the quality of the content or cost to make).

Deep Dive: Ad sales and practices

Right now, my big battle is with advertising. All these ad sales companies require exclusive agreements but will promise you nothing in return. Twice now I’ve signed exclusive agreements with “fancy” podcast sales teams and they’ve sold so little of my inventory that they’ve put the future of the show at risk. As an independent show with a modest audience, there’s no recourse for me.

When I ask ad sales companies if they’ll make any promises as to what they’re going to actually DO for me, they say no, but they still demand exclusivity. What kind of a business agreement is that? I have to promise them everything, and they will promise me nothing in return. Why does the industry accept this as the norm? So many smaller and independent shows I know are struggling with this, it’s not just me. I think that ad sales companies need more critical attention, since they can literally make or break a small independent show and don’t seem to give a shit about us.

Deep Dive: Ad sales and practices 2

I know so many people who suffer from opaque sales practices among big sales houses. They produce a show in partnership with companies who tout their sales and marketing expertise only to find, as a show is heading to broadcast, that virtually no ads have been sold, there’s no marketing plan, and the CPMs are confusingly low. Some sales houses set low performance quotas across an overwhelming portfolio of properties, and the creators are the ones who suffer. Often it seems these sales houses are using their own poor sales performance to artificially bring down the cost of renewal, e.g. “We only made $50,000 on your show and thus can only offer you half of that for season 2.”

A creator may have a thriving brand and a massive subscriber base and still may not be profiting from their show because of the poor performance of these intermediaries. For those who are being paid solely through a revenue share on ads, the situation is even more precarious. They’re totally at the mercy of disorganized and unambitious sales houses and they rarely receive forewarning of poor sales, nor do they have input into marketing strategy or sales rates.

Also, one thing I never understand: Most sales departments put zero thought into selling back-catalog inventory or adjusting the CPM as download numbers increase. Why is this such a novel concept? They just try to sell their quotas and then move onto the next property in their portfolio, leaving money on the table even when shows are receiving a hefty number of back-catalog downloads.

Part Two

Classism and snobbery when it comes to storytelling. The producer/creator community can sometimes overlook the importance of a story because the sound quality or design isn’t to their standard. Making audio documentaries and being able to attend HearSay is a privilege not many people can afford, and this often makes being within podcasting hostile and unwelcoming.

It has always been frustrating that my ideas are not accepted and welcomed even though they are very compelling and I have been given interviews and chosen as finalists. Lack of connections has always been frustrating too. What about people that don’t know important people in the industry.

We sorely lack an avenue/forum for indie pods to break into. Kinda seems like the main gates into the medium have been closed for this type of content by major podcast production firms.

Easy listener discovery of new, potentially great podcasts that are being made outside the big networks and creators is still non existent.

Anonymous one-star Apple Podcasts ratings having such outsized importance on visibility. And I guess Apple’s rating system more generally. And Apple’s app. Okay, maybe my answer is just Apple.

No exposure for independent shows! Like, literally none whatsoever. I’ve sent out dozens of press release kits for a new, highly produced documentary I made and received nothing but silence.

I’m frustrated that everyone is talking about diversity in podcasting but there is no pipeline to bring in candidates from other fields. It feels like we can train to get into podcasting, but even from there to an internship seems like a leap when the industry has so much talent.

It’s still an old boys’ club — and yes, women are represented at events and on panels, but it’s still a one-off representation, and it isn’t the default nor is it the commonality. Women are represented as the workhorses for the content creation and as amazing producers, but they are not shown as running the major ad tech companies, the major public radio networks, nor the major independent content-creation organizations…Women working to advance podcasting isn’t a trend, nor is it just about stay-at-home moms and wellness shows. Treat us like the real tech-savvy business colleagues we are.

The inaccessibility of it all!!! It’s so easy to use a transcription service for your audio and then edit for cultural competence. It would really show your awareness and commitment to offering the most accessible podcast you can. The industry cultivates millions of dollars and still disabled people of color are overlooked every time.

It’s overwhelmingly New York City-centered. It’s sad that we aren’t seeing more efforts to build and nurture existing communities in Atlanta and Minneapolis and hell, even Chicago and L.A. and Colorado and elsewhere. Local stations and independent creators are doing great work all over but you wouldn’t know it based on where all the companies and major folks are based and centered. The magazine industry is a bad example to follow, and it won’t grow if it keeps up (especially given the costs of real estate and housing and other barriers for young people in NYC).

That there’s still such a relentless focus on New York and being in New York. We could do so much more if we broadened our ideas of both how to work and whose work is relevant.

The assumption by podcast folks that everyone in podcasting agrees with them politically and socially. For an industry as diverse and widespread as podcasting, there is a lack of understanding that diverse viewpoints exist. This comes off as smug and alienates half of the industry/audiences. Hot Pod is an offender here as well.

I’m frustrated by the lack of ambition in the U.K. in particular.

Why focus this project on frustrations, and not on what people are the most hopeful about? I don’t really need more downers in my day. I’d be more curious to hear what industry experts envision for the future.

Lack of analytics for us poor researchers.

I just want a job.

Deep Dive: The nature of a career, and burning out

Selfishly, I’m frustrated about feeling like I’m going to blink and miss my moment in this industry. Despite having been super lucky landing jobs for the past three years in audio marketing, it feels like the industry is spinning so fast — changing, consolidating, adding more players but also starting to prioritize big voices — that there seems to be a template starting around how to make it in this industry, which consists of: Teach yourself, freelance your heart out, hop from opportunity to opportunity, and work through (or ignore) burnout (as you so expertly profiled a few months ago). And while there are fewer barriers to entry than in other media industries, podcasting still relies on the hustle, because we’re all pulling “best practices” out of our asses as we try a bunch of things out and make our own ways — and possibly failing (momentarily) in the process. Which can be exhilarating, but what if you also value stability, like I do?

What if you value mentorship by people who know what they’re doing and can show you the ropes? Who have real leadership skills and don’t grasp their tightest onto their “love of content” as an excuse to be bad managers? What if freelancing doesn’t agree with your feeling of wanting to be in control of your finances, but full-time gigs are basically only in the major American cities? What if you’re sick of all the striving and just have to GET OUT OF THERE in favor of a more balanced life? I ended up having to do that — I took a tech marketing job outside of podcasting because I needed a break, but I still dip my toe back in with my free time because I fucking love the work — but I’m burning out.

I’m trying to embrace my need for balance and stability while also putting this passion to use and panicking that if I step away for too long, it’ll be too late and the train will have left the station — meaning the business models will have consolidated into even bigger money among even fewer gatekeepers, and indie podcasts like the one I work on, which has valiantly hustled as a heart-filled, justice-oriented, grant-funded nonprofit, will be left out.

If you’re out of the industry for long enough, will the term “transferable skills” even apply anymore, or will podcast jobs be so in demand that they spur an influx of free intern labor like the film industry? I want to be able to keep that indie spirit alive in podcasting, but the burnout is tugging me away, so that I don’t know how long I can harness the hustle as this podcast train hurtles along at 300 mph.

Part Three

It feels like this crazy new boom of investor interest in money hasn’t actually led to a boom in great new content.

Ultimately, I don’t even care if good stuff gets made en masse any more; like everyone keeps saying, it’s like TV or books or whatever now, just a medium. What frustrates me is having to have stupid conversations every time someone says “podcast” — worse still at a conference. It’s like being in a bad church.

Too much crime.

Popularity of irresponsible true crime.

Everybody doing true crime.

I’m frustrated that I constantly hear ex-radio hosts/people talking about how they’ve “essentially” been podcasting for decades or whatever. Experience in radio doesn’t necessarily make you a great podcaster.

People aren’t sure exactly what they want, but they know they want to make a podcast. They tend to get so wrapped up in metrics without ever bothering to promote their show. Guess what? You only have a dozen or so listeners because you haven’t bothered to tell anyone your show exists!

In larger corporations that have decided to add a podcasting arm, or attempted to get into the industry, most people being put into positions of power are people with little to no experience actually producing podcasts — or even audio of any kind. This means that often you end up working for people who have no idea how labor-intensive it is to produce a podcast, how much it costs, how to market or promote a podcast, how to monetize a podcast. This means constantly having to educate people who are above you in the hierarchy, and wasting a lot of time trying things that you know will not work, or producing less-than-ideal-quality work, or making bad business deals or overpromising clients.

Deep Dive: “Leadership”

Here’s what I’m most frustrated by in the podcast industry at this moment in time: the utter lack of vision and meaningful experience among audio industry “leadership,” and said leadership’s ongoing refusal to seek honest advice from producers who have both. Over the past few years, I’ve seen this situation result in terrible programming decisions; miserable, unsustainable working conditions; and (in one particularly notable case) total leadership paralysis.

As a producer in this space, it’s endlessly frustrating to see network executives repeatedly eschew calls to do the hard but critical work of developing meaningful, rigorous, functional (and ideally, evolving) methods and metrics for assessing prospective projects — and instead continue to make programming decisions that are completely devoid of any grounding in the medium. This kind of “Well, we’re just making it up as we go! No one really knows!” mentality touted by network executives is wildly disrespectful to those of us who are not out here operating solely on guesswork. It also serves the convenient function of allowing leadership to disavow the responsibility of leading; to avoid accountability for terrible, uninformed decisions; and to perpetuate their unexamined biases.

And in every instance in which I’ve seen network executives make terrible, uninformed decisions, I’ve been struck by just how avoidable these bad decisions were. Network executives have endless access to producers they could choose to consult about this stuff: What do you think of this pitch? This plan? This budget? This schedule? How does it contribute to the larger vision of this organization? What is the larger vision of this organization? How do we want to contribute to this industry? The world? And yet, most executives actively choose not to draw from the resources at hand. I know so many talented, thoughtful, strategic, badass, kind, community-oriented, brilliant, creative, capable producers who could contribute so much to leadership’s understanding of the industry and guide major decisions on all fronts — but it’s entirely contingent upon leadership actually listening.

It’s an exhausting cycle to witness, and even more exhausting to live through, and I truly don’t think it has to be this way. My wish would be for everyone in this industry (but most especially, network executives) is to check your ego; honestly examine the power you hold; examine the ways you are or are not using that power (and in the case of the latter, consider who might wield it better and how you might allocate it); examine your motivations; ground yourself in purpose; and then, act accordingly. Because, really, why do anything if you can’t do this? Why seek to lead if you don’t know where you’re going and you’re unwilling to listen to those who can already see the path?

POSTED     Nov. 5, 2019, 10:11 a.m.
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