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Raising the Stakes in Podcasting

Raising the Stakes in Podcasting

Written By

Tom Webster

Know the Author

April 18, 2023

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Every story needs a villain, according to Legendary author Stephanie Garber, but the best villains are the ones you secretly like. I think for a lot of people in podcasting, that villain has been Spotify. If you are a passionate advocate for open podcasting, like the undersigners of the Podcast Standards Project, Spotify’s closed ecosystem represents an existential threat to the portability and distribution of podcasts which have been central to the medium’s first 20 years. If you are a hosting company, well – it’s hard to compete with “free,” though I think most of the paid hosting providers are actually acquitting themselves quite well. And if you are in the business of selling ads, working with Spotify is like a deal with the devil, trading access to your own show’s data for access to Spotify’s ever-growing audience of new listeners.

I don’t want to dwell too much on all of these arguments. Both sides have fair points to make. But I will say this about Spotify: in exchange for becoming an easy target for resentment, they have grown the space for all of us, and significantly so. In the face of article after article from the chattering classes about the “glut” of celebrity podcasts that are destined for failure, Spotify keeps signing celebrity podcasts. While it’s easy now to look at some of their acquisitions as bad deals, how would another platform have spent that money? We can argue about the worth of the Joe Rogan show all we want, but it’s a lot easier to waste hundreds of millions in a series of small deals that don’t actually move the needle than it is to push all of those chips in on the number one podcast all at once and make the kind of splash Spotify did.

A financial analyst would look at the ROI of some of Spotify’s deals and probably conclude that the platform significantly overpaid for many of them. But what if your stated goal was not to hit a financial target in the short term, but to become the number-one audio platform in the world? It took Amazon many years of losses – losses that confounded the thinking of accountants trained to think quarter to quarter – to develop the flywheel they have created: a near-planetary tax on purchases. Any individual acquisition Spotify has made is certainly subject to scrutiny, but the sum total of these acquisitions is undeniable – they have made Spotify more important in audio, and as a not-unwelcome side effect, they have made podcasting more important.

This is what I really want to talk about today. Not Spotify, the villain we secretly like (or, if not like, need.) What we really need in this medium are more ways to raise the stakes for podcasting. If Variety and Hollywood Reporter aren’t talking about these deals, are they talking about podcasting? And it’s here that I want to say a word about Hernan Lopez, founder and former CEO of Wondery. Hernan’s story is still being written, as many of you know, and that story will certainly be part of his Wikipedia entry forever. But I will say this about Hernan, who I worked with from the beginning: that dude swung for the fences. 

He pushed the industry to collaborate on The Podcast Academy and The Ambies, because he knew that podcasting needed a dose of Hollywood in order to matter to the buying public and the brands that are trying to reach them. He got competitors to come together for a series of showcase events called Podfronts (I was fortunate to be the kickoff speaker for just about all of these) designed to showcase our wares as an industry to buyers and brands across the country. And he worked to expand podcasting’s reach internationally. 

There is, of course, a dark side to this story, and many of you know it – Hernan was recently convicted on fraud and money laundering charges related to bribing FIFA officials for broadcast rights to football games in his former life. It can be difficult for those of us who like and respect what Hernan did for podcasting to square all of that with Hernan Lopez, convicted felon. Knowing a difficult thing about someone you have liked and respected creates an almost irreconcilable cognitive dissonance. Hernan is no longer a part of the ongoing story of podcasting. But we can’t ignore his role in writing that story–one we are all now tasked with continuing.

We also can’t ignore the role of Norm Pattiz. I worked with Norm for over 20 years, from the very beginnings of PodcastOne and even before that, in his role with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (you can look them up, if you want.) Norm invented syndicated radio, among other things. And I know that some people have some stories about Norm. Some of those stories are true. Some of those stories are not stories, but actual things that happened to actual people, and there is no “but” here. We often talk about personalities like Norm as “complicated.” Norm wasn’t complicated. He did and said some terrible things. He did and said some wonderful and amazing things. I sometimes feared getting a call from him. And I was in awe of him. All of these things were and are true. 

Norm was larger than life. For a few orbits around the sun, he also made podcasting larger than life. And he did it on his own dime, when he could have just retired on all that WestwoodOne money. He spent his own money to lock up one of podcasting’s biggest stars at the time (Adam Carrola) and to empower stars in other fields (Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, Shaq) to make shows that could grow beyond what podcasting was at the time. Norm believed in this business, and he literally put his money where his mouth was.

I say this without reservation: I admire the hell out of what Norm and Hernan did for the podcasting industry, just as I admire what Spotify has done. They raised the stakes, and they made podcasting matter just a little bit more. And I wonder who is going to do that for us, now.

Today, though we talk endlessly about celebrities who make podcasts, I think we need more celebrities in podcasting. Podcasting just doesn’t matter enough to the general public. It’s still the punchline to an Only Murders in the Building joke. It’s still the subject of SNL skits. It’s still a New Yorker cartoon caption. That’s not the kind of attention that we need. The kind of attention that we need is high-profile talent coming together to make high-profile, quality entertainment, showcasing podcasting as an industry that talented people want to work in. We talk a lot in podcasting about the “Serial moment” – that point in time when people started to really pay attention to podcasts.

I don’t think we’ve actually had our “Serial moment” yet. 

I applaud those who have swung for the fences, taken a risk, and gone out on a limb to make podcasting play bigger than it has. I was once very fortunate to spend a weekend with Michael and Amy Port, actors who now focus their considerable gifts on helping speakers and presenters make more of an impact on stage. I am not sure I was their best student. But one thing I genuinely took away from my time under the microscope there was the actor’s concept of raising the stakes. If it doesn’t matter to you, how can you expect to make it matter to an audience?

I fear we are entering a time in podcasting where we have lost that a bit – we have neglected the importance of raising the stakes. I want more celebrity podcasters. MORE Hollywood writers and directors. MORE of everything. I am going to expand on this a bit in this week’s Data Decoded video, but I was struck by a stat in the 55+ cut of Infinite Dial/Share of Ear data Edison and NPR put out last week: the number one genre with listeners 55 and older in the US is news – and by a lot. The unambitious would look at that and say that news is the safe play for podcasting to reach older Americans. I look at it as a cry for help. 

According to our most recent study, The Medium Moves the Message, Podcasts reach 50% of 18-34s in the US, but only 14% of 55+. News is just a tiny box that some 55+ listeners place podcasting in. But look at what they watch on TV – cop shows, singing competitions, sitcoms, Survivor(still!). News is a utility, and an important one. But a Mariska Hartigay podcast? That might matter.

So what I hope to see in the coming months are more podcasting moves that raise the stakes. Not to the chattering classes, or the OGs of podcasting, or even to top podcast execs. But moves that matter to my parents, or maybe your parents. Moves that make people proud to enter this industry. Moves that swing for the fences, even if we need some “villains” to make them.

It’s time for all of us to level up. We aren’t being served by the press that covers podcasting. We aren’t being served by advertisers. We aren’t being served by publishers. We aren’t being served in a way that is proportionate with the impact of podcasting.

To be crass about it, we are thinking too F%$#^ing small.

The moves that will make podcasting matter may not be popular with those of us who have been in this industry for a while. but ultimately, it’s not about us. We don’t matter. Only the listener matters.

After nearly 20 years in podcasting, I am frankly tired of small thinking and small swings. If you have the ability to make podcasting play big, do it. And if you don’t, support the ones that swing for the fences. They are swinging for all of us.


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About the author

Tom Webster is a Partner at Sounds Profitable, dedicated to setting the course for the future of the audio business. He is a 25-year veteran audio researcher and trusted advisor to the biggest companies in podcasting, and has dedicated his career to the advancement of podcasting for networks and individuals alike. He has been the co-author and driver behind some of audio’s most influential studies, from the Infinite Dial® series to Share of Ear® and the Podcast Consumer Tracker. Webster has led hundreds of audience research projects on six continents, for some of the most listened-to podcasts and syndicated radio shows in the world. He’s done a card trick for Paula Abdul, shared a martini with Tom Jones, and sold vinyl to Christopher Walken.