20 December 2018 Courier Dec/Jan 2019

What’s next for podcasting?

The industry isn't dying – it's diversifying

To say that no one predicted the rapid rise of podcasts would be an understatement. The first were cheap, lo-fi productions, often just one or two nerds doing tech and movie reviews. Barriers to the industry were low – a laptop, a microphone and the internet were all that was needed. Even the journalist who invented the word ‘podcast’ in 2004 did so by accident, whilst ‘padding out’ an article.

Podcasts have struck a chord with huge audiences. According to the latest industry figures, around 70 million people regularly listen to podcasts in the US. In 2017, podcasts generated £233m in revenue – up 86% from the year before.

In recent months, however, there have been growing pains. Panoply, the podcasting unit set up by Slate magazine, sacked most of its staff. Audible, the audio arm of retail giant Amazon, shrunk its podcasting unit. BuzzFeed announced it will continue to put out podcasts but will no longer have a dedicated team, using freelancers rather than staff. 

Today, the same people who were trumpeting podcasting are declaring it dead. But the industry is simply maturing, balancing out and discovering new profit paths. Here are a couple of them: 

— Television networks are now seeing podcasts, like they did novels and comic books for many years before, as another source of ideas. Among the growing line of podcast-to-screen adaptations: Dirty John, Reply All, Welcome to Night Vale, Homecoming, 2 Dope Queens, Crimetown, My Dad Wrote a Porno, Lore, Up and Vanished, S-Town, Serial. The list goes on. 

— Paid subscriptions for podcast shows are the norm in China. And, according to the Chinese government, it’s working: paid podcasts generated £5.4bn in revenue in 2017. The rest of the world is catching up. Google is now pushing podcast subscription and management features in its Google app for Android, while podcast startup CastBox is introducing a paid-for podcast platform similar to Stitcher’s Premium. VCs are investing in new streaming platforms taking a Netflix approach to podcasts, too, such as Luminary Media, which has raised a £30m seed round. 

Put simply, there isn’t a bubble. The best podcasts require an investment of time and money, which not every traditional media company has a lot of right now. Perhaps it always made more sense for podcasting to remain a more specialist market for a passionate few rather than the next big solution to the media industry’s financial woes.