The art of speculation is one of our favorite pastimes in the podcast world. So, here’s my take on where the industry is going.
After attending my first in-person conference of the year (Podcast Movement Evolutions in L.A.) and recent conversations with some of our partners, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the industry is evolving: how it’s structured, how that has changed over the last few years, and how it might continue to change in the future. So let’s dig in!
We’re teaming up
Ever since Spotify famously acquired Gimlet in 2019, there has been a race for the largest industry stakeholders to scoop up smaller podcast companies. From exclusive content to hosting platforms to tech enterprises, these large industry players seem to be looking to develop end-to-end podcast capabilities. Years ago, it felt like there was really one model for podcast success that everyone was chasing: create great content, and monetize it with advertising.
Everyone was attempting to do all the things: produce shows, sell ads, market shows, etc. Now, as the industry matures, rather than figuring it out on their own, larger companies with the available resources are acquiring the companies that have already refined those skills in an attempt to develop end-to-end expertise. But integrating all of these disparate teams is proving to be a bigger challenge than expected.
We’re developing fields of expertise
Perhaps as a result of this massive acquisitions boom, the last few years have led to more companies zeroing in on a specific service and specializing in one area of expertise. An early example of this was when, in 2018, Panoply Media abandoned content creation to focus on podcast hosting, analytics, and monetization with Megaphone (which was then acquired in 2020 by Spotify). Rather than attempting to do everything, the decision was made to focus on the one part of the business where they could ‘win’.
Are these decisions somewhat motivated by the prospect of being acquired by a bigger player? Perhaps. Regardless, as the industry grows up, it seems there are fewer examples of companies trying to spread themselves thin by doing everything, and more examples of companies working together to leverage their distinct expertise.
We’re building a distribution model (And, finally agreeing to the definition of distribution)
One of the results of this increase in companies specializing is the potential for the podcast industry to build a distribution model that is not unlike the film industry. Now, the term “distribution” can be confusing in the podcast industry, as many have differing ideas on what “distribution” means. Does “distribution” refer to podcast apps and RSS feed crawlers that make podcasts accessible to listeners? Would a “distribution partner” be a hosting/ tech platform? Does it refer to marketing and monetizing podcasts? Or does it mean adding a show to an existing network of podcasts?
As companies continue to narrow their focus, will a “distribution partner” look more similar to a film distribution company? This is a model that already seems to be in practice. One session I attended at the most recent Podcast Movement Evolutions, “Two Teams, One Dream: The Key to Successful Collaborations,” featured a panel with Pineapple Street Studios and Amazon. Though no one specifically used the term “distribution partner,” it seems to be the model they are working with. Pineapple Street Studios produces high-quality content, and Amazon finances, markets, and monetizes the podcast. Two partners with distinct specialties are partnering up to create high-quality content for listeners.
“Channels” are pushing the industry closer to a streaming service model
Another factor that could push the podcast industry to more closely model the film/ television industry is an increase in pay-walled content. Formerly called “networks,” Apple has launched a “Channels” model, allowing providers to charge a subscription fee for access to an entire collection of content. This creates increased pressure for providers to consistently put out new, high-quality content that makes a monthly subscription fee worthwhile. A logical solution to this pressure for content is to partner with production companies (such as, ahem, Pacific Content), who can focus exclusively on chasing incredible stories, with high-quality editorial content and immersive sound design.
This model could work well for all parties (production companies and distribution companies), but it would also benefit listeners. And this model also presents opportunities for independent producers. Producers can pitch and sell their concept and secure a healthy production budget upfront, rather than having to self-fund their projects in hopes of making their investment back with advertising post-release. Producing a high-quality podcast requires time and money that most independent producers previously haven’t had access to, and this new avenue for securing a budget can open the door for so many incredible new stories to be told.
As the dust settles on the podcast world, it feels like the once gritty and fiercely independent days that defined the early stages of the industry are behind us. In the early days of podcasting, we looked around us with wide eyes, speculating about the limitless directions the industry might go. And in the end, it feels like we’re turning to some tried-and-true structures of our older siblings in film and television. But, from my perspective, that doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing at all. I’m hopeful that the independent spirit of our industry will push us to approach this next chapter clear-eyed and considerate about the ways amalgamation and consolidation determine the power structures in the industry. As we take cues from the older media industries that came before us, we of course run the risk of inheriting the inequitable structures that plagued those industries. But we also have the opportunity to leverage the things that made those industries successful to create space for new talent to flourish.
After a long Covid-induced break from traveling to the United States, it was interesting to listen to my podcast-downloads south of the border. Fellow Canadians will attest, that it’s exceedingly common to hear episodes completely void of ads. This was certainly not the case in the U.S., making it clear how much more prominent geo-targeting is nowadays.
I was hearing host-read ads on podcasts that I never realized were even doing host-read ads! I have to conclude that either 1) Canadian companies are still very slow to invest in podcast advertising, or 2) a lot of podcast companies are leaving their non-American inventory empty and leaving lots of impressions on the table. Either way, it seems like there are big opportunities there!
Sign up for the Pacific Content Newsletter: audio strategy, analysis, and insight in your inbox.