The Future of Podcasting is Independent

I have been thinking a lot about the podcasting industry lately. The main thread is how even though there were massive layoffs in the podcasting industry, ad revenue and listenership continues to grow. It seems the podcasting industry is set to have the same fate as the newspaper and television industries, which had to “do more with less.”

Just last year, Spotify laid off large portions of its staff, including the podcasting department, on three separate occasions. Other companies that laid off staff include Pushkin Industries, which let go 30% of its staff, WNYC, which also laid off staff in the podcasting division, and podcasting and radio powerhouse NPR did the same.

Now, the podcasting industry isn’t totally destitute. Just this past month, Joe Rogan signed a new multi-year deal totaling $250 million with Spotify, and the comedy podcast SmartLess with hosts Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Shawn Hayes signed a $100 million deal with SiriusXM.

Here’s the kicker: neither of these huge signings are platform exclusive. Spotify is no longer walling their podcasting garden. Instead, they have had a change of heart and are opening up their podcasts to any player you want. That said, there are podcasts that come out on their respective app first and then it is available to the rest of the public after a period of time. Still, it is a win for podcasting and a win for RSS.

Amanda Silberling wrote something for TechCrunch about the decision for these companies to minimize workers to maximize value; and it has stuck with me for some time.

This “maximum growth” mindset has poisoned venture-backed digital media companies like Buzzfeed, which descended from a shining star to an IPO embarrassment. The “middle class” of podcasters can’t rely on Spotify, and other media workers can’t rely on failing media conglomerates like G/O Media and Vice anymore. Over the last few years, worker-owned media outlets like Defector, Aftermath and 404 Media have begun cropping up, often founded and staffed by journalists who had been repeatedly laid off from mismanaged media companies. Now the podcasting industry is facing the same reckoning as Spotify’s losses prove that growth can’t take priority over sustainability. Already, podcast studio Maximum Fun has adopted a worker-ownership co-op model, and as podcasters continue to lose trust in big corporations like Spotify, we’ll see this trend continue.

For me, this is where I have been spending most of my focus lately. The independent podcasts that don’t have millions of dollars behind them. These are also the major majority of podcasts on the internet. The podcasting ocean has several big whales, but swimming amongst them are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of minnows.

Silberling already mentioned Maximum Fun, but another worker-owned podcast that’s on my radar is Never Post, “a podcast about and for the internet.”

Mike Rugnetta, the host of Never Post, said it best in their trailer episode.

I love the internet as a place, a piece of technology and also, conceptually as a set of protocols that … link stuff. That connect things; massive numbers of things in surprising, illuminating, confounding, and yes occasionally ENRAGING ways. The human experience is vast and so I guess of course it is vast also … online.

I wanted to make a show about all of this; I have for a long time: a show not just about the internet specifically, but for the internet – demonstrating and sharing a love of it through its complexity, and all the ways it puts vastly different things in close proximity. Taking that idea, and making it a piece of media – that does the very thing it is about.

This is where I hope the future of podcasting goes, something that is more sustainable, independent, and passionate. I know this can easily be read as me dunking on major podcasting studios and platforms for being big spenders, but I understand their side of things. If you want lots of revenue it is better to manage a few big whales than thousands of minnows. Still, I hope the minnows win out as everyone continues to cast their own net in the podcasting seas.