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Rebecca is an award-winning Executive Producer, Journalist and Host — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability
Rebecca spoke to Sam Sethi for the Podnews Weekly Review; this was recorded on Jul 27, 2023. The below is part of the full interview, which you can hear in the podcast.
SS: You wrote an article in Vanity Fair suggesting that podcasting has lost its cool. What was the thinking behind that piece?
RS: It came from a place of trying to understand myself, given what’s happened in the industry. My career really followed, I think, a very classic trajectory of this boom and bust cycle of podcasts, and so I felt uniquely privileged into seeing how some of that worked. And I just kept on having this feeling like, oh, this thing that I loved, that I did from a place of service and artisan and creativity and like a true soulful place, has sort of become. The word that comes to mind is ‘bastardised’, and I was trying to sort of find myself in that and I thought the more that I talked to other people about it, the more other people were like yeah, I kind of feel like that too.
Also, I’ve talked to people across industries and I have people who are like, yeah, like nobody’s really interested in buying or funding podcasts anymore, like it’s just not a sexy investment place right now for people outside of the industry. So I thought branding is such a buzzword and I thought it would be kind of funny or cheeky to be “what’s wrong with the podcast brand?” Where did it come off the rails and how are the people who still make it thinking about it and interacting with this term and do they care?
SS: So that’s really where it came from. But why do you feel it’s come off the rails? I mean, yes, advertising’s taken a dip and, okay, spotify stopped doing exclusives, but the number of podcasts is still growing. Yes, of course we had a massive hiatus through COVID, everyone’s home bored, spotify came up with a do it for free model, so we saw a massive spike, but generally, the upward trend of those people that are repeat episodes is upwards. Advertising CPMs are staying around the $24, $25 mark for most people. So why do you feel that podcasting’s bubbles popped?
RS: I don’t think podcasting quote unquote is going anywhere. I think a very specific chapter in podcasting that felt exciting and lucrative and had a lot of potential has ended. So the way that I saw it is that in 2014, serial came out and that the New York Times called it podcast first blockbuster hit. And suddenly everybody was like, ooh, podcast, this is a cool space. And all the public radio nerds were starting to be like, oh, maybe I can make my dream project over here in this wild West space and from that you get Gimlet, alex Bloomberg as well Sarah Canan both came from this American life and this starts to grow and grow. And then in 2016, 2017, because of the crazy election cycle, we start to see a mass burst of news podcasts because people are suddenly like I can’t keep up with it. What’s going on? I need somebody I trust to explain this to me. And then in 2018, spotify goes public and part of their IPO strategy is to buy up everything and to be the Netflix of podcasts.
So what I was seeing and we can talk about my own career is that for a little while, the only game in town was public radio. And then suddenly there’s this big, open commercial space, and what I think I was naive to, and maybe we all were, is that corporate dollars will inherently change how we do things, how we make things, what gets made, why things get made, and what I saw is a lot of that money that Spotify, specifically, but other people were investing in podcasts, was going towards people who hadn’t made podcasts and then hired the people who had made them to work for those people. And now, however, many years later, the rent is due and it didn’t pan out. And so what I have observed in terms of understanding branding is, when you see a lot of headlines and you see a lot of negative trends and stocks going down and deals being broken and layoffs and Gimlet barely exists anymore… when you see all of these things, it’s very hard to get somebody who doesn’t already love this thing excited about this thing. So that’s what I’m seeing. It’s not like oh, what was me? Like celebrities are gone, so the industry is over. I’m saying it was very specific wave that had a lot of promise when off the rails and is now over, and that’s hard for a lot of people, including myself.
SS: Isn’t it very much like the dotcom boom? We had crazy valuations, we had money flying into the industry. PetsRus, Friends Reunited - you name it right. I remember a friend of mine, Michael Birch, at Bebo: $850mn, he was paid - for fundamentally a very simple, very basic social network that then just crashed and burned. Are we not seeing that same thing? Maybe we’re seeing the first hiatus of podcasting the money’s in, the money’s out, and maybe that dip will come back with something else 100%?
RS: Of course it will. I have no doubt said it will. I absolutely think that it will come back. I think that lots of it will survive. There are still people thriving. But unless the people who love it start talking about it publicly and figuring out what we want that next chapter to look like, then we don’t have our fingerprints on it. And again, I think that’s something Sam Sanders talked about in the article, and I have seen this too, which is when I would get into the rooms of decision makers and money holders. It was almost never somebody who had built their career in podcasts. It was somebody who had come from something else and made it there. So part of my point of my article is like okay, let’s pretend for one second that the people who make podcasts are in charge of podcasts. What do we want to call it? What do we want people to know about it? What’s great about this? What’s different about it than television and why is it special?
SS: So in the article you did ask what should we rename it. Do you have any ideas what we should rename it?
RS: Not really. I was being a little bit cheeky, right, like I don’t think we’re actually going to call it something else. What I’ve found across the board, polling friends because, I wasn’t sure either, not everybody I talked to ended up in the article, but I think a lot of people like to say they worked in audio, that they work in audio, that they’re audio storytellers, that they produce audio. I talked to one friend who works at a pretty high profile production company and she was like something about the word podcast feels like, oh, it’s just anybody on the mic and that can mean video and that can mean on YouTube and it could also mean This American life. When you put things like that on one bucket, it’s very hard to explain to people why one thing needs a quarter million dollars worth of funding and one thing you can do in your basement for fun.
SS: We have these generic words. We need secondary words that will then delineate them?
RS: I totally agree. I don’t think we’re going to change the word podcast in anybody’s mind.
Part of the reason why I wanted to talk to Ira Glass, other than the fact that he’s like my hero and he started this whole thing and yada, yada, yada, he was a semiotics major, he studied how we interact, like how we experience words and ideas in the world and how that then changes our behavior, and so that’s kind of what I was thinking: when we interact with the word podcast, are we interacting differently with the word documentary or storyteller? I think a criticism of the article was - what’s the point? And I don’t know if I have a specific point, except to say I want to be part of the public conversation and I want other people who care about this medium to be part of the public conversation about what it is and where it should go and how it should be funded and respected.
SS: You said that you had a lot of feedback on the article. Give us a flavor.
RS: I would say for the most part, I got a lot of people who said thank you for seeing me. This is how I feel. I am having my own existential crisis about this thing. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m deeply disappointed. And then there were other people that were like, yeah, this is banal, who cares? Let’s talk about craft.
But here’s what I thought was really interesting for me personally - the feedback really divided along the lines between the people who are able to make and start and sustain a career in public radio and those who are not and were tied to a commercial system. Yes, of course, if you’ve been able to pay your rent and tell the story you want to tell for all these years, and you haven’t had to look at where the money is coming from, then of course you would say that craft is the most important thing. But it’s been interesting seeing that’s mostly come from people who’ve worked and stayed in public radio and I’m going to add, mostly men. And I think that’s really important to remember that podcasting is still like something like 70% men, that there’s very few women in it, there’s fewer opportunities for women in it, and so, seeing that feedback, I was like it’s interesting who gets to focus on craft and who has to worry about where the money is coming from and what people think of it and how we’re going to sell it and pay our rent going forward.
SS: Why do women not get involved? My wife, a super smart business woman of the year, blah, blah, blah. She listens to very few, if any, podcasts, doesn’t feel the value, and she would never start a podcast. She has said before, when she’s gone for a senior role, women wait until they’re over qualified and men go when they’re under qualified.
SS: Are you saying the reason is that there’s a barrier for women coming into podcasting, or are you saying that women don’t want to put theirselves out there front and center as much as men do? Which is it, do you think?
RS: I think probably the answer is both. I think that a couple of things. Something that I think about a lot is people criticize women’s vocal fry disproportionately to men. When we do it, it’s a problem. When men do it, it’s just like how they talk. We still think of words like shrill when it comes to women and not men - there are all these social constructs for women and how we hear women that would make us a) reticent to get on the mic, and b) make people less likely to take us seriously and want to listen to us. I think that those things still show up in this utopic, democratized space where anybody can do it. It’s affected my own career. I’ve just seen it happen over and over again, and it’s something that I want to dig into. I wish that I had a very clear and specific answer, but I think we live in a culture where we’d rather see women than hear women, and so it makes a lot of sense that in a medium where you do not see a woman that it would be less likely to want to hear what she has to say from a place of authority.
The Podnews Weekly Review contains more of this interview, including how she got her job working with Harry and Meghan, and where she sees her future career going.
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