Where We Are Today
Creators are fond of describing podcasting as still in its “Wild West” stage, a time when the rules haven’t been formulated (let alone enforced) and everyone is—in terms of content, metrics, advertising rates, and business models—flying blind.
This concept underplays the extent to which podcasting technology, storytelling, and revenue creation has evolved since its emergence in the early 2000s. Second, it elides the legacy of radio upon podcasting, most particularly the strong influence of both talk radio and public radio on its formats and revenue streams.
On the level of distribution and production, podcasting has unquestionably disrupted radio, hurtling the major players into a state of flux. Whereas local stations once relied on major distributors such as NPR for content, and producers were equally dependent upon them for reaching large audiences, the digitization of audio has rendered traditional distributors unnecessary. PRX, the public radio exchange, has pivoted from a station marketplace into an online platform where producers can upload their work directly for stations to download. What’s more, stations are no longer the only outlets for creators; creators can share their podcasts on a variety of platforms, some of which allow them to reach audiences and earn revenue directly.
“We’re in a position where every producer can also be a distributor if they want,” Seth Lind, director of operations at This American Life, explained. “There’s kind of an identity crisis, and this is happening at the public radio station level, too. It’s like, ‘Are we producers? Are we distributors? Do we need distributors?’”38
Distributors, even the public radio behemoths like NPR, have lost their centrality in the audio ecosystem. This American Life, although still distributed on public radio, has become an independent, public benefit corporation, allowing it to maintain direct relationships with advertisers.39 Instigated by growing advertiser interest, and the need to bundle shows to maximize impressions, new podcast networks like Gimlet Media and Midroll Media have emerged, promising producers greater editorial freedom, higher salaries, or both. Almost weekly, individuals are leaving the public radio system to join them. Just this October, WNYC announced the creation of WNYC Studios, a podcast division that will self-distribute, raise money to develop programming, and hopefully incentivize talent to remain within the company.40
Despite the uncertainty rife within the space, podcasting is making significant strides toward mainstream legitimacy as an industry. Central to this acceptance, of course, is achieving a critical mass of listeners. All interviewees discussed this fact: Podcasts need bigger audiences.
Public radio was able to grow its audience size by giving away high-quality content for free and then monetizing that audience via sponsorship and fundraising. Podcasts have inherited that mantra: Content first, money later. In the words of Stitcher co-founder Noah Shanok: “The single biggest inhibitor in terms of revenue is audience size. As soon as the audience is there, dollars will follow.”41 Seth Lind put it another way: “It’s sort of like an ‘if they come, we will build it’ business model.”42
However, unlike public radio, podcasts are an on-demand medium. As Panoply’s chief content officer, Andy Bowers, explained: Radio and podcasting are “cousins, they’re not even siblings.” Podcasts are “impossible to listen to by accident. Each time it’s a choice. Radio is more laidback; you pick stations and program them in and you float around. You don’t have to make a choice.” He added, “It’s harder to get people to do that [to make that choice], but once you get them, they tend to stay around, like they’ve joined a club.”43
To reiterate Bowers’s point, “once you get them, they tend to stay around.”44 However, the “getting them” remains the challenge at hand, and podcasting still has significant barriers obstructing its audience growth.