Podcast Networks and the Growing Professionalization of Podcasting

Curator's Note

When podcasting emerged in the mid-2000s, the discourse surrounding this new media practice framed it as disruptive: a mostly user-generated form that operated outside the existing media industries, threatening mainstream media behemoths. That discourse of disruption continues today, even as podcasting has become increasingly professionalized, dominated by producers affiliated with traditional radio, television, film, and publishing institutions.

One trend signaling the growing professionalization of podcasting is the emergence of podcast networks. Following the broadcasting network model, podcasters have realized they can increase advertising and fundraising, streamline distribution, cut production costs, and attract bigger audiences by forming networks of interconnected podcasts. Examples include: PRX’s Radiotopia, Slate’s Panoply, Maximum Fun, Nerdist, 5by5, Gimlet Media (the subject of StartUp Season 1), American Public Media’s Infinite Guest, and Earwolf (subsidiary of ad-sales network Midroll).

In this promotional video for Radiotopia’s successful 2014 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, 99% Invisible host Roman Mars compares the podcast network to an indie record label. Elsewhere, Mars and PRX CEO Jake Shapiro have noted their network’s similarities to the standard radio station model. Alex Blumberg has said he wants to make Gimlet the “HBO of podcasts.” In the video, Mars also uses film and television industry jargon like “greenlight[ing]” new shows. All of these analogies suggest that, far from disrupting the status quo, podcast networks are replicating well-established media industry institutional structures and economic models.

This consolidation into formalized networks is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has fostered innovative audio content and original “podcast-first” or “podcast-only” programming. No longer is podcasting merely a repository for recycled radio programming or second-rate extensions of existing media properties. On the other, amateur/DIY productions are being crowded out of the space, and disappearing with them are the utopian visions for podcasting as a democratizing force. It may be easy to create a podcast but it’s harder to find an audience; of the nearly 300,000 podcasts on iTunes, 95% have less than 2,000 listeners. Along with its commercialization, much of podcasting’s content today is formulaic and conservative (aesthetically if not also politically), replicating established genres, forms, and conventions. Over the past century, all new mass media have had a tendency to start open and full of revolutionary promise but then, as they gain social acceptance and economic viability, consolidate into increasingly closed systems – what Tim Wu terms “the Cycle.” Podcasting may be becoming yet another case of media history repeating itself.

Comments

Jeff Casey's picture

same as it ever was?

This is a great post, Andrew. I want to mostly agree with you and then quibble a bit.

So, first, you seem to be dead on in diagnosing the inevitable corporatization of podcasting. The Panoply Network is a canny bid by the Slate Media Group to exploit their existing podcast marketshare, ad revenue, and technical expertise. StartUp would have us see Gimlet Media as a scrappy insurgent company, but all three of Gimlet’s existing programs are in the top fifty podcasts on iTunes. Panoply and Gimlet arguably represent an “upward” pressure on the marketplace, coming from newly organized or re-organized media groups. At the same time, (as I note in my post) if we look at the most popular downloads on Stitcher or the most popular on iTunes, public radio (i.e., NPR, PRI, APM, PBS, and BBC) programs still dominate. Increasingly public radio serves as an incubator for native digital content. (The Planet Money team produces web-only and dual use content.) Established media are also found in the top fifty lists (e.g., Reuters, MSNBC, Time magazine, The New York Times, The New Yorker, HBO, etc.). Public radio and corporate media are able to simply repurpose existing content with minimal cost as a way to keep a foothold in the podcast marketplace. So, these may be seen as two different vectors of corporatization: from new networks, exerting upward pressure, and existing media companies, exerting downward pressure.

Having said that, I wanted to ask you to what extent podcasts might be inherently resistant to corporatization? Podcasts have low production costs, few of barriers to distribution (for the time being), and a low threshold for success. Moreover, as Brad notes with the example of Maron, podcasters often rely on their aura of “authenticity” to appeal to listeners. Podcasters can then to generate revenue by leveraging fan loyalty through cross-media strategies.

Cynthia Meyers's picture

Sky may not be falling ;-)

Professionalization, networking, evolving business models: these are not bad developments, nor do they necessarily foretell closed systems. They are the normal outcomes of growth—and growth is not a bad thing. Efficiency, through networking, can be a good thing—sharing costs can improve content quality.

As to the numbers about how only a few podcasts dominate iTunes downloads, the 80/20 rule pertains to podcasts just as it does to other forms of cultural products—novels, movies, music tracks, blogs, etc. A minority of cultural products attracts the majority of audiences: this is not a bad thing, it’s just the way cultural diffusion tends to work. Few of us actually want to consume every cultural product, nor should we. And the majority of cultural products aren’t very good—let’s not blame audiences for choosing a few over many others.

When podcasters reference other distribution models, they are simply trying to place themselves within recognizable contexts. This is not evidence they plan to replicate bottlenecked systems. They seem to be trying to align themselves with high quality culturally legitimated forms.

Let’s not worry so much about podcasters’ success! Podcasters do not have the advantages of legacy media—they do not enjoy bottleneck-control mass distribution— and so their future depends on their ability to actively interest audiences. This, I think, is a good thing and why we can remain optimistic, at least for now, that podcasting will continue to innovate. :-)

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