My fellow podcasters.
Our young industry has gone through sizeable challenges and experienced a great level of transformation as our rapid period of growth continues.
From sea to shimmering sea, our content is consumed enthusiastically by increasingly switched on generations eager to learn. Together we have achieved great success, and through our innovations we have helped to permanently change the face of the media landscape.
However our future remains uncertain. I remain resolute in my belief that there is more that unites us than divides us, but we cannot deny there are competing visions for the future of the medium we all so love…
OK, maybe I can’t keep up this presidential pretence much longer – but it is certainly worth taking stock and looking at the state of the play within the podcast industry as a whole.
I’ve distilled this down into a series of key statistics and quotes that I believe help to tell the current story of podcasting in my 2021 State of the Industry Address…
Even though podcasting being big isn’t news anymore, it’s still worth crunching the numbers to appreciate just how dramatically the industry has grown. German company Statista found US listenership to come in around the 55% mark – surpassing 100 million people. It was around 44% the year before, and the number has doubled in a decade. UK numbers have also risen dramatically in recent years, with Statista estimating around 15.6 million are currently listening to podcasts.
Whether podcasting is destined to continue on this trajectory or whether we are approaching something of a saturation point remains to be seen. But there is certainly nothing to indicate this is a temporary fad or that a decline in listenership is on the horizon – even if growth was to stagnate, there remains a big old market out there that will continue to interest big business.
“The bigger companies will continue to buy each other and become more and more powerful.”
– Elsie Escobar, co-founder & co-host of She Podcasts, producer and co-host of The Feed + Community Expert at Libsyn
You all know the score by now: Gimlet, Joe Rogan, the Obamas and so forth. To ponder some examples from British TV history, the $340m that Spotify splashed on Gimlet and Anchor in January 2019 could be compared to the launch of ITV to break the BBC’s monopoly, or later Sky Sports’ dramatic revolutionising of the way sport was consumed. Across these examples we see an existing media paradigm being disrupted by well-funded upstarts with a different – and controversial – model.
GLPro’s very own Tony Gordon has done a great job of exploring the implications of Spotify’s presence in the market [LINK]. It’s probably too early to say exactly what this means for how we produce and consume podcasts. But we can say for sure that Spotify are far from the only major corporate players set to shake things up. As more and more join the party, the ‘free-for-all’ character of the podcast market will increasingly be a thing of the past.
“Podcasts will of course continue to grow as a strong source of IP for TV and film. Especially coming out of a quarantine year when so many A-lister actors and producers familiarised themselves with the podcast medium even more.”
— Conal Byrne, President of the iHeartPodcast Network at iHeartMedia
I used my last blog to wax lyrical about the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast [link], an episode-by-episode review of Scrubs hosted by its two lead stars. What I didn’t mention was how this could be a real harbinger of content to come – the ‘watch-through’ genre is nothing new, but the likes of Fake Doctors and Talking Sopranos demonstrate how its potential balloons when those responsible for the original content are fronting the show.
But we’ve barely scratched the surface. Imagine what will happen when movie execs realise they can release podcasts as part of the promotional cycle of a film – behind the scenes snippets and teasers and exclusive interviews with lead stars, segueing into fan theories and critiques post-release. A low-cost platform with almost unlimited potential for circulating hype.
“Every movie and TV production company will either launch their own podcast divisions or seek out current podcast production companies to create podcasts with their current IP … COVID has made producing TV and movies harder and more expensive and podcasts are the perfect lower-cost alternative”.
— Matty Staudt, President of Jam Street Media
Food for thought. One day in the future – when we’re awaiting the release of the next Warner or Universal podcast blockbuster, or listening to a Netflix podcast documentary series about the making of a Netflix podcast series – those of us who were in on the ground floor will smile wistfully as we remember when the field was made up of a load of amateurs in their basements.
And here’s why the big players are here to stay. eMarketer are from alone in forecasting these figures and without the minor inconvenience of an earth-shattering pandemic, some are inclined to believe we’d already have hit the $1bn mark in 2020.
Aside from providing an obvious financial incentive for podcasting, the growth of advertising poses questions for content as well. Will podcasts adopt some of the tactics of print media, increasingly incorporating paid for content that blurs the lines between the creative product and the messages of its funders? (Some might argue this already exists in the form of insincere conversations between podcast hosts about the latest products they are enjoying). Will podcast product placement become a thing? Will dangling the carrot of ad-free content drive users towards subscription packages?
Although some of the podcasts in Spotify’s stable may only be exclusively available on the platform, this content remains accessible to free and premium users alike. If Spotify were to start effectively paywalling their content – and a customer survey suggests they’re strongly considering it – they wouldn’t be the first. Luminary, who fancy themselves as the Netflix of podcasting, work on the basis that listeners will gladly pay a premium for higher quality content (£28.99 for your first year); Stitcher and Slate blend free and paid for offerings.
But does this mean you can still call them ‘podcasts’? To some, such a model is unfaithful to the definition of the term. Instead, they argue, this content could be termed ‘Premium Audio Programmes’. Perhaps there will come a time when we are all discussing the latest release of PAP from Spotify…
“The conceptual boundaries of ‘podcast’ will continue to expand beyond the confines of an RSS, and beyond the genres we know all too well … For corporations, audio is a comms tool, and “podcast” is mere packaging. For publishing, the line between audiobooks and podcasts will continue to blur, and publishers will explore podcast-companions for multiple uses: marketing, curricula, engagement, monetisation.”
— Shira Atkins, Co-founder, WMN Media
All of which adds up to suggest that we might be framing the question incorrectly – rather than pondering the future of podcasts, maybe we should instead be pondering the fate of the definition of the word itself.
So is podcasting a non-stop growth machine on an unstoppable trajectory to world domination?
Not for everyone.
“Podcast M&A [mergers & acquisitions] activity continues with a frenzy reminiscent of a game of chairs where the music could stop at any moment. More podcast companies continue to launch and advertising revenue continues to be outpaced by acquisition price tags. At some point, the industry runs out of things to buy and sell … in the distance, tumbleweeds.”
— Sharon Taylor, Managing Director, Triton Digital
Certainly something to think about. But in the meantime, I can only see things getting bigger before they get smaller. Here in 2021 podcasting is in rude health but at a crossroads. Maybe my next address won’t even be to the podcast industry – perhaps I will instead be addressing Producers of PAP…
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