Has independent podcasting peaked?

“The truth is that the old business model embraced by independent podcasters isn’t sustainable — especially if you’re trying to do ambitious rigorous journalism.”

Has podcasting peaked?

Audio is an incredibly powerful way to connect with an audience and tell complicated, true stories. Audio journalism is receiving some long overdue love and respect. And the podcasting ecosystem has enormous strengths. It’s open. It’s flexible. It could easily become interactive.

But the diversity and vitality of the podcasting community is in danger.

Podcasters have never created universally recognized open standards like the web. We haven’t effectively pushed tech platforms to evolve and serve creators. For most podcasters, there’s only one way to make a living: Sell ads.

So for more than a decade, we’ve been stuck hawking Squarespace subscriptions and mattresses. And this rich, open world of podcasts is now being pulled apart.

Last year, I laid out my vision of what an audio web could look like — but today, it looks less and less like we’re headed in that direction. Instead of building an open and more interactive audio ecosystem capable of supporting meaningful journalism, the big tech platforms, led by Spotify, are rushing to build vertically integrated networks. Spotify isn’t just publishing exclusive content — it also controls distribution, hosting and ad sales too. In that kind of environment, Spotify will capture the lion’s share of any profit.

Other platforms are imitating this playbook and buying up the big shows. Even Apple is now producing its own audio newscast.

The truth is that the old business model embraced by independent podcasters isn’t sustainable — especially if you’re trying to do ambitious rigorous journalism. Many big successful podcasts can’t pay their bills with ad dollars alone, and supporting sustainable local journalism in a digital, ad-driven environment is increasingly impossible.

What’s missing in the audio space today are platforms that empower podcast makers to build membership communities — and make it easier for podcasters to sell their own subscriptions. Today’s biggest platforms are not designed to help podcasters build and strengthen their audiences and their communities.

What’s missing is the ability of a publisher to create rich interactive experiences and distribute that on any app or any smart speaker.

In the coming year, I have no doubt that the biggest podcasting stars will continue to see large paydays as tech platforms bid to buy them out. But unless podcasting platforms evolve, what we could be left with will resemble the big industrial radio oligopoly of the late 1990s, and the diversity and promise of podcasting could begin to disappear.

Steve Henn, a former public radio reporter, left Google’s audio news team this summer.

Has podcasting peaked?

Audio is an incredibly powerful way to connect with an audience and tell complicated, true stories. Audio journalism is receiving some long overdue love and respect. And the podcasting ecosystem has enormous strengths. It’s open. It’s flexible. It could easily become interactive.

But the diversity and vitality of the podcasting community is in danger.

Podcasters have never created universally recognized open standards like the web. We haven’t effectively pushed tech platforms to evolve and serve creators. For most podcasters, there’s only one way to make a living: Sell ads.

So for more than a decade, we’ve been stuck hawking Squarespace subscriptions and mattresses. And this rich, open world of podcasts is now being pulled apart.

Last year, I laid out my vision of what an audio web could look like — but today, it looks less and less like we’re headed in that direction. Instead of building an open and more interactive audio ecosystem capable of supporting meaningful journalism, the big tech platforms, led by Spotify, are rushing to build vertically integrated networks. Spotify isn’t just publishing exclusive content — it also controls distribution, hosting and ad sales too. In that kind of environment, Spotify will capture the lion’s share of any profit.

Other platforms are imitating this playbook and buying up the big shows. Even Apple is now producing its own audio newscast.

The truth is that the old business model embraced by independent podcasters isn’t sustainable — especially if you’re trying to do ambitious rigorous journalism. Many big successful podcasts can’t pay their bills with ad dollars alone, and supporting sustainable local journalism in a digital, ad-driven environment is increasingly impossible.

What’s missing in the audio space today are platforms that empower podcast makers to build membership communities — and make it easier for podcasters to sell their own subscriptions. Today’s biggest platforms are not designed to help podcasters build and strengthen their audiences and their communities.

What’s missing is the ability of a publisher to create rich interactive experiences and distribute that on any app or any smart speaker.

In the coming year, I have no doubt that the biggest podcasting stars will continue to see large paydays as tech platforms bid to buy them out. But unless podcasting platforms evolve, what we could be left with will resemble the big industrial radio oligopoly of the late 1990s, and the diversity and promise of podcasting could begin to disappear.

Steve Henn, a former public radio reporter, left Google’s audio news team this summer.

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