The New Gatekeepers

Is the podcast bubble bursting?

September 20, 2018

Podcasting was supposed to be one of the saviors of digital media—inexpensive, addicting, profitable, and popular. But now it’s like the old line from baseball legend Yogi Berra: “That place is so popular, no one goes there any more.” Panoply, the podcasting unit set up by Slate magazine, recently laid off most of its staff and says it will now become just a distributor of podcasts rather than the creator of them—despite what appeared to be strong support for its existing podcasts. And on Wednesday, BuzzFeed announced it was also laying off staff at its podcasting unit—the company said it will continue to do podcasts, but won’t have a dedicated team the way it used to, and will now mostly use freelancers rather than staff. Audible, the audio arm of retail giant Amazon, also laid off some staff from its podcasting unit recently.

There have also been a couple of developments that on first glance seem more positive: At the same time Slate Media announced that Panoply was shifting focus, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg said he was leaving to join a podcasting startup with longtime friend Malcolm Gladwell. And radio conglomerate iHeartMedia announced that it was buying Stuff Media, a podcasting business, for $55 million—although it’s unclear whether the acquisition is a sign that there is still gold in the podcasting hills, or that iHeartMedia is desperate to find some kind of growth after having to file for bankruptcy protection due to its massive $10-billion debt load.

So if one of the benefits of podcasting was that they made good money, why are companies like BuzzFeed shutting down or downsizing their operations? One obvious answer is a glut of supply—in 2015, a list of the “must listen” podcasts was 200 items long. At some point, even podcasting aficionados started to wonder who had time to to listen to all those podcasts. A similar thing happened with video, after everyone pivoted to short-form video because Facebook said it wanted as much as possible. After creating teams of people to produce them, monetization failed to follow, in part because Facebook never rolled out a reliable way of doing it, and has now moved on to focus on longer form video for its Watch feature. And many video teams at newspapers and news websites were left twisting in the wind.

Even the fact that podcasting became a hot commodity in the first place seemed rather unlikely at the time—after all, the concept is so old that it uses the term “pod,” in reference to the Apple iPod, a device that hasn’t been popular for years. Podcasts were originally a kind of niche market, driven mostly by nerds doing tech or movie reviews, and then they suddenly became more popular after a few podcasts struck a chord with a larger audience, like the original Serial podcast in 2014, about a man unjustly accused of murder. Soon, media companies were launching them left and right, and creating teams to produce more. Podcasting startups emerged, and two public radio veterans quit to start their own would-be podcasting empire called Gimlet Media.

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As often happens whenever the crowd moves en masse into a new format, the quality of podcasting also suffered. Creating good short-form video and audio requires different skills than writing and editing a print product, and not everyone is able to do it well. Even The New York Times’ own public editor criticized the paper for moving too quickly into video for Facebook and sacrificing quality in the process. In the case of podcasting, there are a lot of shows consisting of armchair pundits (mostly white men) talking about something they saw or read, without adding much insight.

Podcasting can also be difficult to monetize: Audio is difficult to summarize or browse through (although some podcasts do offer transcripts), which arguably makes it out of sync with the short attention span culture of social media—although that’s also what many people like about it. In any case, sharing short clips the way one does with video doesn’t really go viral in the same way, and that makes it difficult to market podcasts the way other media assets get marketed. Also, podcasting doesn’t really have an established way of measuring success that advertisers can get comfortable with, apart from just tracking raw downloads.

The ironic thing about podcasts is that despite their flaws, they remain one of the best ways for a media outlet or publisher, even an individual, to connect with an audience of passionate supporters and pull them into a long-term relationship. But they are also time-consuming, and at a time when many media companies—including giants like BuzzFeed—are under pressure for revenue, they probably aren’t the slam-dunk solution that a lot of companies are looking for. And so even highly creative podcasts like some of the ones BuzzFeed created can’t find a home, which is unfortunate.

None of this is to say that podcasting is dead—just that, like anything else, it requires an investment of time and money to do well, something that not every media company has a lot of right now. Perhaps it always made more sense as a niche market for a passionate few rather than the next big solution to the media’s financial woes.

Editor’s note: CJR’s latest podcast, including discussions on the confessions of fallen men and Tucker Carlson, is here.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.