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A changing industry amps up podcasters’ ambitions

“Listeners will not be content to be mere passengers on our creative trip. They want to drive sometimes.”

The soundbites about podcasting are captivating. “$1 billion in ad revenue in 2020.” “800,000 podcasts in existence.” “90 million Americans listening.” “You can win a Pulitzer!”

It’s all dizzying and exciting for people trying to cash in on the buzz. But some of us on the inside know that the hype and drive towards profit will force a lot of podcasters to decide if they’re a pro or a hobbyist.

I believe that’s a good thing.

First, outside recognition, such as inclusion in the Murrow Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, signals a far more than mere acceptance for the nonfiction, journalistic genres flourishing in podcasting. It means podcasting is seen as a storytelling format on par with the best of what television, radio, and print media have to offer. It also means that podcasting is mobilizing audiences on such a significant level that major forces in media cannot exclude it from serious consideration. All that will legitimize the work that many brilliant independent creators are already doing. It will also extend the prestige of such honors to very deserving legacy producers and their teams.

Second, cross-pollination between media genres (i.e., podcast to streaming, podcast to film, podcast to VR) will encourage creators to think about their ideas as multidimensional, as seeds that can grow across genres and formats. Start with a good story or a fascinating main character and use the podcast to get the timeline and major details down. Then write a treatment for a long-form documentary that expands to important secondary players to get a capacious look at the larger themes at work in the narrative. Follow that up with a screenplay for a fictionalized version of the story in which an unexpected element (a superpower? divine intervention? time travel?) lets the story span generations back and into the future. The possibilities are endless.

Last, the approaching critical mass of sophisticated podcast listeners will come to expect more immersive experiences. That means a t-shirt will have to grow to a live event that will evolve to special access to the creators that will forge a community built around shared values that bind listeners to the show and to each other. Listeners will not be content to be mere passengers on our creative trip. They want to drive sometimes. The wonderful Podcast Brunch Club, with over 60 chapters across six continents, exemplifies the longing for connection podcast listeners feel. Its growth tells us a lot about what’s important when people gather around their favorite shows.

But these are all also among the factors will draw a line between hobbyists and pros.

Podcast hobbyists will experience 2020 as the year of reckoning. While some will be happy to produce an episode whenever they can find the time, others will leave full-time jobs and risk it all in podcasting. They’ll borrow money, drain their savings, and take a creative leap for a chance to be as financially fulfilled as they are artistically satisfied by making shows they love.

Current freelance podcast producers will find co-founders and go boldly together where each dared not go alone. They will incorporate, demand reasonable contracts, charge late fees, and reference knowledge banks like Werk It’s What Podcasting Pays Now and AIR’s Code of Fair Practices. They will take on technical and narrative challenges that will shed further light on what our genre and format can do. They will push their creativity to remain competitive but also raise their level of difficulty to stand out. And podcasting will be better for it.

I’ve seen signs of this change coming for two years as I’ve make the rounds at industry events and worked with some of the best producers and editors in the field. They’re poised to assert their worth as podcasting matures and monetizes its way into the mainstream.

The soundbites about podcasting are captivating. “$1 billion in ad revenue in 2020.” “800,000 podcasts in existence.” “90 million Americans listening.” “You can win a Pulitzer!”

It’s all dizzying and exciting for people trying to cash in on the buzz. But some of us on the inside know that the hype and drive towards profit will force a lot of podcasters to decide if they’re a pro or a hobbyist.

I believe that’s a good thing.

First, outside recognition, such as inclusion in the Murrow Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, signals a far more than mere acceptance for the nonfiction, journalistic genres flourishing in podcasting. It means podcasting is seen as a storytelling format on par with the best of what television, radio, and print media have to offer. It also means that podcasting is mobilizing audiences on such a significant level that major forces in media cannot exclude it from serious consideration. All that will legitimize the work that many brilliant independent creators are already doing. It will also extend the prestige of such honors to very deserving legacy producers and their teams.

Second, cross-pollination between media genres (i.e., podcast to streaming, podcast to film, podcast to VR) will encourage creators to think about their ideas as multidimensional, as seeds that can grow across genres and formats. Start with a good story or a fascinating main character and use the podcast to get the timeline and major details down. Then write a treatment for a long-form documentary that expands to important secondary players to get a capacious look at the larger themes at work in the narrative. Follow that up with a screenplay for a fictionalized version of the story in which an unexpected element (a superpower? divine intervention? time travel?) lets the story span generations back and into the future. The possibilities are endless.

Last, the approaching critical mass of sophisticated podcast listeners will come to expect more immersive experiences. That means a t-shirt will have to grow to a live event that will evolve to special access to the creators that will forge a community built around shared values that bind listeners to the show and to each other. Listeners will not be content to be mere passengers on our creative trip. They want to drive sometimes. The wonderful Podcast Brunch Club, with over 60 chapters across six continents, exemplifies the longing for connection podcast listeners feel. Its growth tells us a lot about what’s important when people gather around their favorite shows.

But these are all also among the factors will draw a line between hobbyists and pros.

Podcast hobbyists will experience 2020 as the year of reckoning. While some will be happy to produce an episode whenever they can find the time, others will leave full-time jobs and risk it all in podcasting. They’ll borrow money, drain their savings, and take a creative leap for a chance to be as financially fulfilled as they are artistically satisfied by making shows they love.

Current freelance podcast producers will find co-founders and go boldly together where each dared not go alone. They will incorporate, demand reasonable contracts, charge late fees, and reference knowledge banks like Werk It’s What Podcasting Pays Now and AIR’s Code of Fair Practices. They will take on technical and narrative challenges that will shed further light on what our genre and format can do. They will push their creativity to remain competitive but also raise their level of difficulty to stand out. And podcasting will be better for it.

I’ve seen signs of this change coming for two years as I’ve make the rounds at industry events and worked with some of the best producers and editors in the field. They’re poised to assert their worth as podcasting matures and monetizes its way into the mainstream.

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