A shot of a galaxy

Our industry is overdue for its next breakout star – so why are there none on the horizon?

Podcasts live or die on the ability of their hosts to keep audiences engaged. Regardless of subject matter, sector or vertical, or the commercial strategy – if you don’t have good hosts you don’t have a hope. Having run the Publisher Podcast Awards for five years now, the charm of the winning podcasts’ hosts is one of the most important criteria that our judges site, year after year.

That’s why, in recent years, the platforms that sought to own the ecosystem bought host-led shows. Spotify invested heavily in the likes of Joe Rogan (though we know how that went), Kim Kardashian, Alex Cooper, Bill Simmons, and many more. 

For a while the podcast industry experienced a gold rush in which each and every platform sought to snap up the exclusive rights to acquire or commission host-led podcasts – because those hosts were the big lure for audiences who could be served ads. It was effectively a loss-leader strategy, with the eye-watering sums paid out to those hosts the cost to become a huge player in the podcasting space, with the prestige and advertising that came with it. 

For Spotify at least, that era has come to an end. It has achieved its goal of becoming the second-largest podcast platform. Many of its biggest stars – Alex Cooper in particular – have been released from their exclusivity clauses ahead of time, their work for the company done.

That isn’t to say that the role of the host is being deprioritised – far from it. In fact the continued success of celebrity-led podcasts like The Peter Crouch Podcast in the UK suggests that hosts will remain one of if not the key draw for podcasts for quite some time.

But as the host names in this article suggest, these hosts had a following from long before they entered the podcasting space. Their transition to podcasting and the rush from platforms to snap them up was largely because they already had audiences, not because of any faith they would grow them from a cold start.

From a podcast platform or production house’s point of view this is a smart business model, one that mitigates the risk of investing in new talent that might fizzle out or experience podfade before finding an audience. It’s also not a strategy that is going away any time soon; look at how production companies like HeadStuff commission new shows like Young Hot Guys – by establishing that the hosts have pre-existing audiences that will follow them to the new medium.

It may be a good business model, but to me it also smacks a little of timidity. Worse, I think it suggests short-termism on the part of the platforms that indulge in it.

From tiny acorns

For a while, when the race to snap up exclusive content was at its height, some podcast platforms like Acast made a lot of noise about their incubators. Acast Amplifier, which no longer has an active URL of its own, was described as a project by which up-and-coming podcasters could receive funding and access to advertising revenue through Acast’s ecosystem. It was a recognition that there are only so many huge podcasting juggernauts like Cooper and Rogan that podcasters can snap up for their audiences, so in the long run it is better to try to grow some. It has, to its credit, helped provide funding for some podcasts that might not otherwise have found audiences.

But, after the rush for exclusives calmed down, so too did the search for new talent. NPR’s Oye – which sought to discover the next generation of Latinx podcasters – closed its applications in 2022 and has yet to reopen for further submissions. Amplifier, as mentioned, is no longer active as it once was. And as of time of writing Sound Up from Spotify has no active events across the 12 countries it launched in. Incubators – explicitly designed to search for new talent – appear to have fallen by the wayside too.

And that’s what worries me. Podcast platforms – like any media company – cannot become complacent and only commission what has already proven to be popular. That’s how newspapers end up serving a dwindling and ever-smaller audience, because it’s safe in the short-term. 

But in the long-term, it’s a self-defeating strategy. Media companies should be stretching to discover new audiences by taking a chance on smaller creators, otherwise they eventually exhaust the single audience seam they’ve mined for so long. At the moment that risk might be masked by the increasing investment in podcast advertising driven by better adtech, but it won’t be for long.

Data from Spotify found that 63% of people surveyed said they trust their favourite podcast host even more than their favourite social media influencer. And people – for better and worse – typically seek our views from people who share their own views and backgrounds. By being timid about seeking out new talent from underrepresented backgrounds, and instead commissioning shows from ‘safe’ hosts who are already popular, podcast platforms are in turn ignoring vast swathes of the audience. 

Without a more strident approach to finding new talent from underrepresented backgrounds – hosts who can appeal to new demographics – podcasting runs the risk of being as staid and stale as the more traditional broadcast industries, where EDI is still severely lacking. And, just as we’ve seen in those other industries, it is both a commercial and ethical imperative to be representative.

At the Publisher Podcast Awards we’ve always been keen that any publisher, regardless of scale, can have a seat at the table and as good a chance of winning as any of the larger publishers. For the podcast industry to grow – and to actually be as democratic and open-to-all as it used to promise – we need to bring back incubators and more aggressively search for new talent again.

Come join us at this year’s Publisher Podcasts & Newsletters Summit if you’re interested in discussing issues related to podcasting – from creation to monetisation to growth.

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