Can a ‘nobody’ make a popular, financially stable podcast?

Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes host a podcast called You’re Wrong About which reexamines events, ideas, and figures—the “Satanic Panic”, acid rain, Tonya Harding—that they feel were unfairly maligned by a frenzied media. “We often talk about subjects that involve us being very critical of the media, very critical of advertising, and very critical of the kinds of stories that get told when one of the primary questions is ‘How salable is this narrative and how much money can we make off it?’”

Marshall and Hobbes, both professional journalists, are not trained podcasters. Still, they put a lot of time into You’re Wrong About, and they’re passionate about the show and the community around it. In a perfect world, creating the podcast would be their full-time jobs, and it’d pay like it, too. “But if we were unable to do that without tipping into a balance of enough listeners that it stops feeling like the community that it is,” Marshall says, “Then I wouldn’t be so crazy about that.”

ICYMI: Officer holds journalist at airport until he ‘admits’ to writing propaganda

The show is currently a part-time gig for both hosts, who are professional journalists. For many podcasts, the path to financial stability–and a full-time gig–is lined with mattress ads and website promos. But for You’re Wrong About, which levels a critical eye at the media and how the news industry peddles stories for profit, it just doesn’t sit right. Along with her moral concerns, Marshall sees sponsorship as a slippery slope to losing touch with her active and engaged audience. A sudden boost in attention—through a trick of an algorithm, or a high-profile endorsement—could turn her small, supportive community into a mass of strangers, who may crave new content faster than Marshall and Hobbes are used to producing on a crowd-funded budget. 

As Spotify and Luminary bring corporate money into the industry, their dilemma increases in its stakes. Should podcasters seek to score deals with the production arms of these companies, like independent creators did on Netflix? Or is there another way? 

 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

THE HISTORY OF PODCASTING is bound tightly with Apple. In 2005, iTunes debuted podcast discovery subscriptions and hosted an original catalogue of over 3,000 shows. Today, that number is above 750,000, with over 24 million episodes available. 

If you had a podcast pre-2018, it probably lived on your own website and in Apple’s directory. Production companies with large presences, such as Stitcher and Audible, developed their own apps to hold their content libraries; still, by and large, Apple was a one-stop shop. Unlike the music section in the iTunes store, podcasts were free, and they still are, because Apple’s endgame was to sell hardware, not monetize content. Until quite recently, “original” content—podcasts such as The Rewind with Guy Raz, native and exclusive to Spotify, and the Luminary-only Fiasco, helmed by former Slow Burn host Leon Neyfakh—didn’t exist.

Luminary is a new podcasting production company that raised $100 million in venture-capital funding last summer and launched its own app in April. Following Spotify’s model, Luminary hosts a vast content library of shows, but the shows Luminary itself produces—with celebrity talent including Karamo Brown and Trevor Noah—live on a “premium” tier of the app, available for $7.99 per month. 

Philosophical dissonance—between those who believe the content itself should be free and those who want to directly profit from it— caused an uproar in the industry. Less than a month after Luminary’s debut, Public Radio Exchange (PRX), which creates its own shows and supports a network of DIY podcasters through training initiatives, pulled its shows from Luminary’s catalogue.

“The architecture of podcasting is, by design, open and free, since it’s built on RSS and open web values,” Kerri Hoffman, CEO of PRX, says. “For me, I believe that the strength of the system is that openness. It’s no surprise, as podcasting becomes more popular and more successful, that the ‘platformization’ of the content starts to happen.” However, she adds, “in the way we see it, there are no tiers.” 

Ad-based sponsorship is still one of the main ways podcasters financially support their work and keep it free for listeners. A premium tier that removes ads and makes listeners pay for content is a jarring reversal of the status quo. With new players such as Luminary (which drops ads) and Spotify (which seeks to create its own ads, à la standard podcast-sponsor partnerships) cracking the firmament of Apple’s dominance, profit streams are diverted from creators to corporations. As listening audiences splinter across these platforms, the race to find the next superstar podcast—the kind that will get listeners to pay $7.99 a month—is on.

That race seems to frequently favor known entities and celebrities over newcomers. Currently, Guy Raz, a sort of Ryan Seacrest of podcasting, hosts five shows on three different platforms, including Luminary and Spotify. (In July, he announced plans to step away from the TED Radio Hour at year’s end.) Raz “has become one of the most popular podcasters in history,” noted Nellie Bowles in a November New York Times profile. According to the profile, Raz’s podcasts, which have shared space in Apple’s top-10 list, combine for 19.2 million downloads each month. (Full disclosure: I recently began a temporary assignment for NPR, which also employs Raz; this story was reported and written before my hiring.) A recent Variety cover story about the “podcast revolution” gave prominent placement to Conan O’Brien, the TV host, who the magazine placed “among a new wave of podcasters helping to transform the niche medium into a viable business.” 

“Anyone can start a podcast” is a popular sentiment, and for good reason: one of the most powerful players in the industry has historically been public radio, which seeks to lower barriers to entry with training initiatives such as PRX’s podcast garage, a community space which offers audio storytelling classes and professional-grade studio access, and Podquest contest, which rocketed Ear Hustle into superstardom. (To be fair, Spotify has a similar program supporting women of color called Sound Up, and earlier this year acquired Anchor, a podcasting app that aggregates production tools alongside business ones like listener data and sponsorship pairing.) But can a “nobody” make a popular, financially successful podcast? If editorial strategies primarily focus on familiar figures, then the answer is most likely no.

 

Independent media needs to exist because otherwise there is literally no space for ideas and projects that are not driven by mainstream thought and corporate intervention.

 

THE FRAGMENTATION of the podcasting marketplace and the ensuing uncertainty in the independent business model calls to mind the trials of musicians as streaming overtook physical sales as the dominant form of consumption. 

“Apple was not attempting to use its position as the operator of the iTunes store to drive down the costs they were paying for the content,” Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition, a music-advocacy nonprofit, says. “They gave everybody the same deal.” 

But Spotify’s streaming model pays “pro-rata,” dishing out legally-owed royalties based on the ratio of an artist’s streams to the number of total streams on the whole platform—and, therefore, only paying dividends for artists with massive, built-in followings, and leaving most musicians in the dust. Spotify’s algorithm is also an “echo chamber,” as The Baffler’s Liz Pelly reported, vastly skewing in favor of male artists and enforcing the trend through technology, quashing diverse voices. For podcasts on Spotify, such a combination may end up looking like celebrity-anchored shows receiving preferential promotional activity and racking up a larger ratio of streams.

Podcasts, however, don’t receive payment per stream. In fact, they’re not obligated to receive payment from the platforms at all: although Spotify has to cash out royalties to songwriters and performers due to copyright law, no such legal precedent exists for podcasting content, as Rolling Stone reported. This is actually the incentive for shows to ink exclusivity clauses into their deals with platforms. (Spotify reportedly paid comedian Amy Schumer over $1 million for the exclusive rights to her podcast 3 Girls, 1 Keith.) 

“Our mission has always been to enable 1 million creators to make a living off their work,” a spokesperson for Spotify says. “When we launched as a music streaming company this meant music artists, and now it includes helping podcasters and other creators of audio monetize their content.”

But helping creators “monetize their content” by providing audience metrics (via tools such as “Spotify for Podcasters,” recently launched at full-scale) is vastly different from paying someone for their work. (A Spotify spokesperson declined to explain how the revenue generated by advertisements on the platform is distributed.) 

Without funding from sponsorships, it’s unclear how independent, non-exclusive podcasters will be compensated for their work without adopting the musician’s model of never-ending live shows and slinging merchandise, or giving up the gun and joining a corporate cohort. And should an independent podcast make the jump to a corporate platform, its creators would also lose some control over who interacts with their podcasts, what promotes that interaction, and how advertising gets pinged towards their listeners.

We take for granted the idea that everyone wants to level up their business to fame and fortune, but not everyone defines success in that way. Podcasting took over an important social function from the blogosphere, where diverse and marginalized voices could self-publish.

“Independent media needs to exist because otherwise there is literally no space for ideas and projects that are not driven by mainstream thought and corporate intervention,” Jes Skolnik, a labor activist and senior editor at Bandcamp, says on Twitter. There is a fear that the “platformization” of the content, as Hoffman of PRX puts it, will do to podcasts exactly what the digital ad market did to blogs, and that consolidation with corporate entities will destroy the spaces where vital voices proliferate. Independent media has a too-often forgotten value: for those with viewpoints or identities outside the mainstream, it is “an aid in organizing and community development, something necessary for our existence in this world,” Skolnik finishes.

For Marshall and You’re Wrong About, growing an audience past the point of being able to connect with a podcast community is just not worth it. In the spirit of independent musicians of decades past, maybe the best choice is to eschew the power players while it’s still an option at all. History says it may not be a choice forever. “Why don’t you just stick to the part where you’re working out of a garage and everyone’s having fun?” Marshall suggests. “Just keep that going for as long as you can.”

ICYMI: “She identified herself as a reporter. He then walked behind her and punched her in the side of the head”

 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Cyrena Touros is a cultural critic and reporter with a focus on the intersections of art, counterculture, and digital society. She is currently an Assistant Editor for NPR Music.