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2018: Year in Review

What kind of year has it been? When I sat down to plot this column last Tuesday, a few words popped to mind: busy, chaotic, confusing. Frankly, I’m not sure how I’ll remember 2018 down the line, but I have some ideas of a few things that’ll stick.

I. Perhaps the most pronounced public narrative of the year — which is to say, the story that most spread far outside the community — revolves around the late summer shake-ups at a few particularly public podcast companies. I’m talking, of course, about Panoply’s divestment from the content business (and subsequent termination of its editorial division) as well as BuzzFeed’s move to lay off its audio team, both of which happened almost simultaneously in September. Those two developments deepened a fledgling paranoia that had already been seeded just one month before, when Audible moved to restructure its original content strategy and abruptly phased out the group responsible for Audible’s shorter-form podcast-style programming.

The suddenness of those stories, clustered together, was jolting to many. And it understandably caused casual observers to loudly raise the classic pundit’s question: are these signs of the “podcast bubble” bursting?

As I argued in a column at the time, I don’t believe that was the right question to ask. I remain agnostic on the question of whether there is a “podcast bubble,” but even if there was, these three stories wouldn’t be the right yardsticks to measure a burst: one showed reshufflings within an audiobook company, one never quite committed to the medium in the first place, and one actually represents a doubling down on the future of the podcast industry.

Nevertheless, the fact that the question of a podcast bubble burst drew considerable attention tells us something about the state of medium’s public narrative: podcasting continues to feel strange, fragile, and unreal to most people outside of it (and even many who are part of it). To some extent, this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Sure, podcasting has tangibly grown in audience, revenues, critical acknowledgment, and relevance to the broader entertainment industrial complex. But those gains have relatively been modest, slow, and steady, and they present some incongruity with what feels like an outsized increase in attention that’s been placed on the medium over the last four years. The end result, then, is a lingering expectation for podcasting to fall back down to earth, or straight down into a ditch, at some point in the future. The summer’s quick evocation of a bubble, I think, was a strong expression of that.

II. One consequence of podcasting’s relatively modest progression has long been a sense of frustration among a good chunk of the podcast industry. But it’s also cultivated the smell of opportunity for an older digital audio guard looking to capitalize on the perceived gaps embedded in podcasting’s slow-but-steady growth, and to become the determining factor in wherever the industry goes next. And their involvement in the space seems to have kicked up a notch in 2018.

Spotify has had a busy year: signing buzzy deals with talent like Amy Schumer and Joe Budden, slowly ramping up its original podcast offerings with pre-existing shows like Dissect and established podcast-native talent like Guy Raz, and finally opening up its platform to all podcast publishers in October. The extent to which these moves have moved the needle for the Swedish streaming platform remains unclear, but nevertheless, they feel like precursors of a sort: I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something drastic from them next year.

Meanwhile, last month, Pandora rolled out the Podcast Genome Project, which it had been teasing since January. The company appears to be betting that it can leverage its built assets and made achievements — that is, up-and-running advertising infrastructure and the whole algorithmically-generated playlist experiences — to make a meaningful dent in converting existing Pandora music listeners into Pandora podcast listeners. We shall see.

And of course, we also have debt-burdened broadcast giant iHeartMedia, which has already been working hard to muscle its way into the podcast narrative for some time now. The company acquired Stuff Media, the parent company of HowStuffWorks, back in September (which, incidentally, is around the same time as the BuzzFeed-Panoply-Audible stories), which comes off as another expression of its intent to harvest the podcast ecosystem’s potential.

That acquisition should be a signal to all other podcast publishers, by the way. One of the effects of three opportunity-prospecting platforms descending on the podcast industry like UFOs over a cow farm is a more competitive space for deal-making (windowing, exclusives, straight-up acquisitions, take your pick). It’s a potential mess between these platforms, and some publishers can stand to gain from a mess like that.

The Pandora-iHeartMedia nexus is also particularly interesting to me for another reason, because nested within that story is the possibility of corporate control from a much older generation. Consider the following developments: in September, SiriusXM, the satellite radio giant, agreed to acquire Pandora Media, and just last week, the New York Post reported that Liberty Media, which holds a majority stake in SiriusXM, is reportedly aiming to take control of iHeartMedia as soon as the debt-laden broadcast giant digs itself out of bankruptcy, possibly early next year. I trust you can solve the equation yourself.

It’s not all older music streaming platforms that’s jockeying for a position in podcasting’s future, though. It’s another tech giant, too. In June, Google launched a standalone dedicated Podcast app, driven by an intent “to help double the amount of podcast listening in the world over the next couple years.” It’s a bold mission statement — some would say, a little too bold. (Seriously: why not just underpromise and overdeliver? Goodness.) Anyway, there’s been some argumentation lately about the app being a disappointment, but I think it’s a little too early to tell where this goes. It’s my personal view that system-level revolutions don’t tend to happen overnight, and that behind most “overnight successes” is usually a lie, a misdirect, or a crime. (Shouts to Balzac, or whoever actually said the quote I’m paraphrasing.) As it stands, Google has every bit of potential as Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartMedia to actually carve a meaningful place within the podcast universe.

III. Enough talk about UFOs. What’s been happening on the ground?

For one thing, there’s been a number of interesting acquisitions that took place this year, outside of the iHeartMedia-Stuff Media deal, of course. Notably, Veritone One agreed to acquire Performance Bridge in August, possibly reshaping the competitive landscape of media agencies and podcast advertising.

Earlier in the summer, a coalition of public radio organizations acquiring Pocket Casts, which raises questions about the viability of third-party podcast apps in the age of increasing participation from behemoth streaming platforms like Spotify and Pandora. (Also related to this: Castro being acquired by a technology portfolio company called Tiny.)

And while we’re on the subject of public radio, the most interesting acquisition to me isn’t an acquisition at all: it’s the merger between PRX and PRI, which I can’t help but read as a situation where PRX is taking control of PRI’s assets. This has ramifications for both PRX’s ongoing adventures in podcasting as well as a public radio landscape long defined by National Public Radio.

Meanwhile, another noteworthy trend revolves around the efforts of a few companies trying to capture wherever podcast advertising goes next. The overarching strategy here, I think, is to become the mediating marketplace itself for segments of the podcast ecosystem that remain under-monetized. In February, RadioPublic launched its Paid Listens program to provide revenue options for shows that would otherwise not qualify for advertising deals. On a similar note, Anchor launched its Sponsorships program last month. Looming over both these moves is Megaphone, Panoply’s reason for ditching the content business and its ticket towards realizing a programmatic future for podcasting.

But the most interesting trend, to me anyway, is one that’s been happening at the level of creators: the independent podcast studio model continues to rise, with a cluster of compelling new entrants popping up on the West Coast. The model has also taken an interesting turn in recent months. I’m thinking, specifically, of Malcolm Gladwell and Leon Neyfakh, whose podcasting efforts were previously housed at Panoply and sister company Slate, and who have left start independent shops of their own. I am almost certain many more will follow.

IV. I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly bring up Apple, which hasn’t been mentioned once in this column so far. As I wrote last week, the new Apple podcast analytics, which rolled out late last year and which was thought by many to be something that could change the podcast business forever, ended up representing a slow evolution rather than a rapid revolution over the past twelve months.

In previous years, back when other major platforms weren’t hovering over the horizon, this pastoral Apple development wouldn’t be such a big deal. For what it’s worth, I’m one of those people who holds stock in the idea that Apple’s position as the impartial dominant steward of podcasting has historically been a good thing, as it structurally kept the ceiling low and broadly cultivated a sense of an equal playing field. (Yes, I know this point is debatable.) And I’ve generally thought that the onus was on whoever wanted to build a podcast empire to go on and build the terms of that empire outside of a platform and on their own infrastructure. That, I figured, was the ticket to a podcast community-owned future.

But the steady encroachment of those other platforms changes the equation quite a bit. How, and in what way, remains to be seen, and that question is the main one that I’ll be tracking in the new year.

Alright, that’s it for the chunky stuff. Let’s shift gears, and briefly cover some other stories that I and Caroline thought were big from the year.