Podcasting, As We Know It, Is Dead

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(By Tanner Campbell) So you’ve had a couple of days to read many different takes on Spotify’s recent acquisition of Gimlet and Anchor and you’re likely feeling a little unsure (if not uneasy) about the future of podcasting. Well I’m here to paint a pretty bleak picture, but I’m going to wrap it up with a call to action that will likely be your only hope of surviving as an independent, low-budget podcaster. Here we go.


The evolution of our demise.

Do you remember how hard it used to be to know how many listeners you had? You remember checking downloads via Webalizer Stats and then doing an hour of mad scientist math to find out that your three-episode podcast had a million hits?

“Oh my god! I’ve gone viral.”

As great as that made a lot of us feel as newbies, it made companies and advertisers absolutely bonkers. Companies and advertisers rely on good data to tell them how and where they ought to invest their ad campaign dollars and they had no choice, when it came to podcasts, but to trust we the podcasters and our crap data. I promise that they didn’t like this.

But they dealt with it because there wasn’t an alternative of any kind — this was the best tracking there was.

But increasingly there was a demand for a standard, from industry and from podcasters (but for different reasons), and in 2018 we got a standard, an IAB standard (or the start of one). And now we know, better than ever, how many people actually listen to our shows.

And just as Obi Wan felt a great disturbance when Alderan was Death-Starred, we all felt a similar disturbance when 1,000,000 podcasters all cried out in unison, “OMG MY NUMBERS!” and were suddenly silenced.

Egos were decimated, but clarity was gained. Not just for us, but for those who might be willing to pay us for access to our audience.

Before the IAB standard, and likely the catalyst for its creation, entertainment networks were beginning to notice that podcasts were the perfect medium for niche targeting. Practically all the work was done for them by the creators and the carefully qualified audiences were already there, just waiting to be sold to. But there was still a latent uncertainty about the numbers and, in addition to that, there was the obnoxious difficulty of finding podcasts to connect with. Advertisers needed a facilitator, a matchmaker, a middleman.

Opportunity was knocking, but not for the independent artisan podcaster, for the larger entertainment networks with capital and motivation — and they had both in spades. Money, duh. Motivation? The desire to intercept the $35CMP by getting in-between the advertiser and the creator, of course. It’s not devious, it’s business, they had to do it, and we shouldn’t hold it against them.

So one emerges late, but not too late, and starts accepting podcast submissions: iHeartRadio, not Spotify. But iHeartRadio makes a mistake, they partner with Spreaker (not the mistake) and they put conditions on the approval of podcasts who submit (the mistake). What were the approval standards? I don’t know. Nobody did. The only certain requirement was that you had to submit through Spreaker.

Years later, another network figures it out, this time a network much better received by the general public, and one which didn’t put requirements on submissions: Spotify. Bless their entrepreneurial hearts.

And we all submitted en mass. Why? I’ll never know. We did it knowing we wouldn’t be paid, we did it knowing what Spotify streaming had done to music (a la Taylor Swift), but we did it all the same. I think we did it because we were still chasing the audience size — that’s always been our misplaced goal: popularity.

Then Spotify made the next logical move: buying the most juggery juggernaut in the podcast production game (Gimlet) and the platform that creates the highest percentage of new podcasts (Anchor).

Why did they do this? I suspect for two reasons:

  1. To own a podcasting farm (Anchor).
  2. To own a production studio (Gimlet) that can groom the best crop yield of that podcasting farm.

And while these are two super intelligent business moves on Spotify’s part, they aren’t what’s killed the podcasting game as we know it — what’s killing the podcasting game as we know it is the streaming business model (the “everything should cost $10 a month” business model) and our participation in it.

The Coming Of The Gatekeepers

Centralized listening platforms are emerging and with that emergence comes security for advertisers — certainty for advertisers — and with that security comes loyalty. Spotify has access to big data and the ability to analyze that big data in ways we (as independent podcasters) cannot. We cannot tell advertisers that X% of our audience is Nationalty-X, Gender-X, and Income-Level-X, but Spotify can (and more) and that means more effective advertising, lower conversion rates, and healthier profit margins for advertisers.

And therein lies the rub:

Why would an advertiser come to you, the independent podcaster with only a rudimentary understanding of his/her audience, instead of going to Spotify? Why would an advertiser pay you a $35CPM and accept a high rate of uncertainty instead of paying Spotify a $35CPM for access to a highly qualified, tightly targeted audience that will convert more cheaply?

Answer: They won’t.

Spotify will, sooner than 2020 I’m sure, introduce YouTube-esque monetization options and regardless of whether or not there’s an audience size requirement to participate, podcasters will be paid fractions of a cent for every listen. The only way you’ll be able to make a living is to amass a follower count of (using YouTube’s $2CPM as a benchmark) 250,000 or more just to earn a semi-living ($500/episode assuming one release a week).

So how do we survive?

There are three options.

1. Be a bad ass with money to spend

Come into podcasting with great writing, a great concept, great sound, a healthy budget, and strong marketing skills, so your audience will be enormous and Spotify (or whoever) will buy you. Basically be Gimlet.

2. Build a premium show and target a small audience

Create a niche podcast, make it premium only, treat it like a product and do all the marketing things necessary to sell it to a 1000-person audience. Be humble with your ambitions.

3. Use podcasts as part of a larger marketing strategy for your business or product

Podcasts can be value-bringing, intimate commercials which are listened to voluntarily and allow would-be customers to get to know you and trust you before eventually becoming your customers.

Food for thought from a veteran podcaster and podcast engineer living on the stone coast. Do with it what you will.

Tanner Campbell is the owner of a small commercial podcasting studio in South Portland, Maine. Contact him by e-mail at [email protected] or the old-fashioned way, 207.292.1155.

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