Huge investments, mergers and experiments prove that getting into audio content is a lucrative move for publishers – but 2021 could be the year the dream of the open podcast economy dies an ignominious death. Chris Sutcliffe rounds up the year as part of our Media Moments 2020 report.

Many, many deals have stalled or been delayed this past year, as the foundations of media businesses have been shaken by disruption. Notably some of the largest acquisitions have been made in the audio and podcasting space, which has proven to be resilient despite an initial hit to listener numbers at the start of the pandemic. 

Without the commute – which provided a captive audience for creators looking to reach an audience through the secondary activity of listening to a podcast or radio app, the worry was that podcasting would be a leaky ship, just as impacted as metro freesheets have been.

Over the course of the past few months, though, podcasting has proven to be hardy enough to weather the storm. In fact, there were 133,171 new shows in Apple Podcasts in June, the highest amount of new shows ever to be added in just one month. Now, with eyes turning to the opportunities around engaged listeners over the next decade or more, everyone’s trying to cash in on that stable and growing audience.

What happened in 2020?

By the start of 2020 we knew that media businesses were aiming to develop their podcasting businesses. Vox, for one, was already generating over $10m in revenue from podcasts alone, and head of Vox Media Studio Marty Moe’s stated aim was to double that over the course of the year. It helped that Vox already had a raft of over 200 established podcasts at its disposal, including Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway and The Ezra Klein Show. But other publishers, without that historic investment in the medium, had to consider acquiring their way to the top table instead.

Appropriately, 2020 began with some podcast news that is seen as having proved the viability of the format. In January, it was reported that Serial Productions was shopping around for a buyer – though the sale to the New York Times wouldn’t come until July, for somewhere in the region of $50m. It was an early sign that the larger media companies considered it prudent to start building up their podcast production capabilities, and made sense even then for The NYT, which has set the standard for daily news podcasts with The Daily.

Also in January, it was reported that Apple was looking to commission original podcasts based around its suite of Apple TV+ content. Whether that was originally to take the form of commentary on individual episodes, as AMC has done, or was to be fiction as with Marvel’s experimentation, is unclear. It was an early proof point that podcasts are seen as having the potential to be integrated into wider editorial strategies, even outside of the hard news industry.

Outside of podcasting by the strictest definition, June saw the launch of Times Radio, the new DAB station from News UK. Launched with some fanfare with an ‘exclusive’ interview with the prime minister, the launch was somewhat marred by the fact that people asking their smart speakers for Times Radio were directed to Times Radio Malawi, a music and talk station based in east Africa. A few months down the line, Times Radio has yet to really establish itself as a big player in the audio space.

Furthering the delineation of audio content, July saw The Washington Post launch audio versions of its print articles. While this wasn’t an entirely new endeavour for a newspaper, WaPo later reported that it has been surprised by the number of listeners who chose to engage while at home, rather than commuting. In the same month, Apple added more audio options to its Apple News+ offering.

“What we’ve learned from users is that they listen to the news while doing other things, and are consuming far more content than they would normally. We plan to continue iterating on the feature to provide the best quality experience.”

Leila Siddique, Senior Product Manager at The Washington Post

One interesting corollary of the huge growth in podcasting this year has been the rise of content about podcasting. In much the same way that film criticism sprang up and became a viable vertical in its own right, so too has podcast criticism.

In August Vulture announced it was set to double the amount of podcast coverage it produces, with its star podcast critic Nick Quah launching a podcast recommendations newsletter that seems to ameliorate the issue of discovery that still plagues podcasting. The Observer’s podcast critic Miranda Sawyer has also been especially busy over the past few months, as information about new podcasts comes at a premium.

Undoubtedly, the biggest player in podcasting this year has been Spotify. In February it completed its fourth major acquisition in twelve months by buying The Ringer and its production capabilities. A few weeks later, in March, it cemented its position as a major acquirer of talent by hiring former editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Lydia Polgrave as head of content for its subsidiary Gimlet Media

And then, in May, the biggie. Spotify announced they had signed The Joe Rogan Podcast as an exclusive. The news launched a thousand thinkpieces – and just as many arguments about whether audio content distributed without an RSS feed even counts as a ‘podcast’ any more. Crucially, it brought the back catalogue of his episodes in-house, with a few notable excisions related to the most controversial episodes. 

Deals with Kim Kardashian-West for a series about criminal justice reform and the first results of its partnership with Michelle Obama soon followed. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that a majority of the news around podcasting this year came from Spotify. 

Where are we now?

Podcasting’s better-than-expected showing over the first half of the year has led to it being a safer bet than most mediums. While advertising revenue across the board has been hit by Covid-19, podcasting has weathered the storm better than most. PwC’s amended predictions see the amount of advertising revenue entering the space rising to $814M – only 6% less than what PwC and the IAB predicted for 2020 last year at this time. 

That, combined with a general increase in confidence around the viability of the medium, means that we’re probably in a position where media buyers increasingly regard podcasting as a primary channel, particularly at the larger organisations. The same is true for sponsorship opportunities and branded content, both of which are having a bit of a moment.

At the same time, podcasting is having a bit of an identity crisis. If the audio content on Spotify isn’t a true podcast, does that mean we need a new term? If radio shows are later released as podcasts, should we be describing them as ‘audio’ instead? What does it say that Audible appears to be labelling much of its catalogue as podcasts? Expect this discussion – and a wider one about available metrics around audio – to become much more widespread in the near future.

“It’s been pretty wild to see podcasting grow to the extent that it has, and I’m excited to have a new space where I can more regularly draw attention to the shows that I love, that I find the most interesting, and that I think say something about where the medium is going.”

Nick Quah, Founder, Hot Pod

What can we expect in the future?

If you’ve read this section and felt uneasy about the sheer amount of audio content that is now appearing exclusively on Spotify, congratulations! That is the correct response.

As the huge media networks and publishers hoover up the mid-sized and large podcast networks, we’re in danger of the open podcasting ecosystem becoming a thing of the past. That’s especially problematic when, as those who read the fine print around Amazon’s new podcast service discovered, those platforms have final say on what they deem acceptable to distribute.

We’re also likely to see more teething problems, such as Spotify employees demanding editorial oversight over Joe Rogan’s podcast, as those platforms take on editorial positions. One thing’s for certain – the spate of acquisitions is far from over. Expect many more exclusive signings and publishers courting celebrities for new podcasts – and more projects based on podcasts. And, of course, more confusion about rights.

This article is an extract from our Media Moments 2020 report. To see the case studies for this chapter and to read the full report, download it here.

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