Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

“I struggle to find a single example of a podcast company that’s been acquired in the past few years that has thrived under its new ownership.”

March 11, 2020: The staff at our podcast company, Magnificent Noise, had lunch together. Sitting around the table, I said, “Perhaps this is the last day we should be coming into the office.” And it was. Outside of a trip to water plants and pick up mail every two or three weeks, I’ve pretty much been the only person who has gone back at all.

That isn’t unique to us, and it isn’t unique to podcasting. But podcasting had a wild ride in 2020, much different than other media and industries. The beginnings of lockdown were accompanied by a jaw-dropping decline in downloads and listening. Advertising buys were canceled at a dizzying rate. It looked bad. Really, really bad.

A few reporters asked me for my thoughts on the download decline, and I said it’ll bounce back. In radio, we’ve seen disruption like this on a smaller scale before — after 9/11 or a natural disaster, during the holidays, during the outbreak of military action — and things come back pretty quickly. One writer responded: “You can’t be serious.” I told him I was. He didn’t publish my response. (Nor did anyone else who asked.)

I don’t share that to show that I was right, but to note that — despite some incredible dire circumstances and predictions — podcasting had a pretty great year. That seems weird to say in 2020, with so much economic, health, and political turmoil, but it really did. Some impressive acquisitions happened. Revenue increased. Listening has not only bounced back but grown, and more people continue to discover podcasting.

Podcasters might be ready to wipe their brow and exclaim: Whew, we sure dodged that bullet. But that would be premature. There are many reasons to believe that 2021 will bring some significant bumps — ones that won’t upend podcasting but will dull the shine on the industry’s outsized buzz.

Three things lead me to say this.

The tide of the news cycle — and consumer interest in newsy content — will pull against us.

Nearly every organization that employs a reporter has spun up a daily or weekly news podcast, figuring that if The Daily can swing 4 million downloads a day, there has to be something at that table for them. But if you look at the long-term history of news media consumption, it looks like a staircase: quickly rising in the year or two leading up to an election cycle, then flattening for a year or two afterwards. In a post-Trump, post-pandemic, post-election world, even The Daily will have to work harder to maintain its audience (if that’s even possible). So will everyone else.

Acquisitions will taper off for a while.

If Wondery is acquired in the coming months, then pretty much every major buyable company in podcasting will have changed hands recently. For the industry, that’s healthy and normal. It clears the deck for a new tier of upstarts to grow in prominence and profile — a new generation of leading podcast companies which will eventually become large enough to attract those same M&A dollars.

That isn’t the problem. The problem is the buyers. I struggle to find a single example of a podcast company that’s been acquired in the past few years that has thrived under its new ownership. That lack of a clear post-acquisition success story — along with the comparatively low acquisition prices of podcast companies — will dull a lot of the enthusiasm for acquiring that next tier of companies. (I know it seems crazy, but to industry outsiders, a major podcast company selling for $300 to $400 million is not an impressive price.)

Let’s be honest: Our industry’s risk tolerance took a beating in 2020.

While the business of podcasting fared pretty well in 2020, its content ambitions took a major hit. The conservative trends we’ve seen emerging in the past several years accelerated during the pandemic. Nothing drives that home like this Podtrac chart of the most popular new podcasts of 2020. Notice any trends here? Rather than demonstrate an industry focused on adventurous and innovative content, this list looks like an industry focused on monetization and sameness.

When I consult with clients, I tell them the best choice for long-term prosperity is to focus on the listener’s short-term happiness. Give them great stuff and they’ll stick with you. And when they stick with you, the money follows. The answer to most questions is: Take the path that builds audience. But the core question is: What makes them happy?

There’s an old adage that if restaurants just focused their menus on what everybody loved, they’d eventually serve only mashed potatoes and peas. (If you know the origins of that saying, please let me know.) I’m sure many of the executives who greenlight some of the industry’s more formulaic and redundant content would say they’re just giving listeners what they want — and that’s fair. But look at what happened to pretty much any media sector (network TV, movie, books) when they’ve overindulged on repeating the content forms that consumers seemed to prefer. It becomes a high that never quite matches the way it first felt. Media has a long track record of forgetting the difference between what’s popular and easy to sell now with the novelty consumers will crave tomorrow.

So what’s the net effect of these three? In practical terms, not a lot. People will still listen. Downloads might soften, but they won’t crater or decline significantly. If anything, podcasting’s outsized prominence will come back down out of the clouds. But even if that happens, in a very real pragmatic sense, podcasting will still be the future of spoken word audio for the foreseeable future. Just not quite as hyperbolically so.

I’ve done these predictions for a number of years and so far, luckily, haven’t generated a lot of cringeworthy or profoundly incorrect prognostications. But this year, I really hope I’m wrong. I’d love it if someone waves this in my face next December and tells me that I missed what ended up being a great year. If there’s one consistency in the short history of podcasting, it’s the industry’s ability to surprise and evolve in directions that are difficult to foresee. In a world stuffed full of change, let’s hope that’s one thing that continues in the new year.

Eric Nuzum is co-founder of Magnificent Noise.

March 11, 2020: The staff at our podcast company, Magnificent Noise, had lunch together. Sitting around the table, I said, “Perhaps this is the last day we should be coming into the office.” And it was. Outside of a trip to water plants and pick up mail every two or three weeks, I’ve pretty much been the only person who has gone back at all.

That isn’t unique to us, and it isn’t unique to podcasting. But podcasting had a wild ride in 2020, much different than other media and industries. The beginnings of lockdown were accompanied by a jaw-dropping decline in downloads and listening. Advertising buys were canceled at a dizzying rate. It looked bad. Really, really bad.

A few reporters asked me for my thoughts on the download decline, and I said it’ll bounce back. In radio, we’ve seen disruption like this on a smaller scale before — after 9/11 or a natural disaster, during the holidays, during the outbreak of military action — and things come back pretty quickly. One writer responded: “You can’t be serious.” I told him I was. He didn’t publish my response. (Nor did anyone else who asked.)

I don’t share that to show that I was right, but to note that — despite some incredible dire circumstances and predictions — podcasting had a pretty great year. That seems weird to say in 2020, with so much economic, health, and political turmoil, but it really did. Some impressive acquisitions happened. Revenue increased. Listening has not only bounced back but grown, and more people continue to discover podcasting.

Podcasters might be ready to wipe their brow and exclaim: Whew, we sure dodged that bullet. But that would be premature. There are many reasons to believe that 2021 will bring some significant bumps — ones that won’t upend podcasting but will dull the shine on the industry’s outsized buzz.

Three things lead me to say this.

The tide of the news cycle — and consumer interest in newsy content — will pull against us.

Nearly every organization that employs a reporter has spun up a daily or weekly news podcast, figuring that if The Daily can swing 4 million downloads a day, there has to be something at that table for them. But if you look at the long-term history of news media consumption, it looks like a staircase: quickly rising in the year or two leading up to an election cycle, then flattening for a year or two afterwards. In a post-Trump, post-pandemic, post-election world, even The Daily will have to work harder to maintain its audience (if that’s even possible). So will everyone else.

Acquisitions will taper off for a while.

If Wondery is acquired in the coming months, then pretty much every major buyable company in podcasting will have changed hands recently. For the industry, that’s healthy and normal. It clears the deck for a new tier of upstarts to grow in prominence and profile — a new generation of leading podcast companies which will eventually become large enough to attract those same M&A dollars.

That isn’t the problem. The problem is the buyers. I struggle to find a single example of a podcast company that’s been acquired in the past few years that has thrived under its new ownership. That lack of a clear post-acquisition success story — along with the comparatively low acquisition prices of podcast companies — will dull a lot of the enthusiasm for acquiring that next tier of companies. (I know it seems crazy, but to industry outsiders, a major podcast company selling for $300 to $400 million is not an impressive price.)

Let’s be honest: Our industry’s risk tolerance took a beating in 2020.

While the business of podcasting fared pretty well in 2020, its content ambitions took a major hit. The conservative trends we’ve seen emerging in the past several years accelerated during the pandemic. Nothing drives that home like this Podtrac chart of the most popular new podcasts of 2020. Notice any trends here? Rather than demonstrate an industry focused on adventurous and innovative content, this list looks like an industry focused on monetization and sameness.

When I consult with clients, I tell them the best choice for long-term prosperity is to focus on the listener’s short-term happiness. Give them great stuff and they’ll stick with you. And when they stick with you, the money follows. The answer to most questions is: Take the path that builds audience. But the core question is: What makes them happy?

There’s an old adage that if restaurants just focused their menus on what everybody loved, they’d eventually serve only mashed potatoes and peas. (If you know the origins of that saying, please let me know.) I’m sure many of the executives who greenlight some of the industry’s more formulaic and redundant content would say they’re just giving listeners what they want — and that’s fair. But look at what happened to pretty much any media sector (network TV, movie, books) when they’ve overindulged on repeating the content forms that consumers seemed to prefer. It becomes a high that never quite matches the way it first felt. Media has a long track record of forgetting the difference between what’s popular and easy to sell now with the novelty consumers will crave tomorrow.

So what’s the net effect of these three? In practical terms, not a lot. People will still listen. Downloads might soften, but they won’t crater or decline significantly. If anything, podcasting’s outsized prominence will come back down out of the clouds. But even if that happens, in a very real pragmatic sense, podcasting will still be the future of spoken word audio for the foreseeable future. Just not quite as hyperbolically so.

I’ve done these predictions for a number of years and so far, luckily, haven’t generated a lot of cringeworthy or profoundly incorrect prognostications. But this year, I really hope I’m wrong. I’d love it if someone waves this in my face next December and tells me that I missed what ended up being a great year. If there’s one consistency in the short history of podcasting, it’s the industry’s ability to surprise and evolve in directions that are difficult to foresee. In a world stuffed full of change, let’s hope that’s one thing that continues in the new year.

Eric Nuzum is co-founder of Magnificent Noise.

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

L. Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Cory Haik   Be essential

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

james Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Joshua Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Richard J. Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative