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2019 in Review: Choice and the Year of Freaking Out

When I think back over the past twelve months, it’s the freakouts that stand out to me. A lot has happened this year, between the acquisitions and the consolidations and the sheer volume of new episodes cascading into feeds. But it’s not the actual happenings themselves that I remember most clearly — it’s the messages piling up in my inbox afterwards. That feeling that there’s a wave of nerves headed towards my direction that I can’t stave off.

This was the year of anxiety. Both in the world more broadly, but also in our little corner that’s concerned with podcasts. To give you an example of what I mean: for everyone who wasn’t directly involved in Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet — which is to say, almost everyone — the seemingly out-of-the-blue movement of a big corporation to acquire a major player in a small industry came a brutal shock.

Whether you work with audio at a broadcaster, an independent production company, a sales house, a network, or completely by yourself, the inevitable next question is: “What does this mean for me and my work?” And there weren’t many definitive answers in the months that followed. In an uncertain environment, it’s natural and reasonable to feel unsettled. “Let’s wait and see” isn’t a very comfortable position.

The nature of the podcasting space to date has also contributed to this atmosphere of unease. There are so many overlapping and competing interests involved, from public radio to venture-backed studios to ambitious networks, and each has a different set of priorities. Entities slide into a greater involvement with audio, entering sideways or stopping and restarting their efforts. Sometimes it feels wrong even to talk about “a podcast industry”, since we’re not all facing in the same direction most of the time, but I’m not really sure how else we can do this.

Overwhelmingly, it was the smaller providers and individuals who reached out to express their anxiety this year. Creators who aren’t inking big advertising deals but who are making a living (or some of one) from their audio, now concerned about how the models they have painstakingly constructed will be buffeted by the new norms… whatever those turn out to be.

It began to feel cyclical to me. Every few weeks, Spotify or another big corporation would make a big announcement concerning podcasting, and the “what does this all mean??” posts and messages would start to appear. While I do think that many of the developments we’ve seen this year will change podcasting in the long term, I also think that our chances of accurately unpacking what that will look like in the first 24 or 48 hours are very low. Which isn’t very helpful when you’re freaking out, I know.

The trend towards greater corporatization in podcasting is undoubtedly here to stay. I would characterise myself as a pessimist who’s ready to be pleasantly surprised — I think some of the consequences of what happened this year will be good for some people, while others could be bad. What interests me is how quickly the anxiety spikes, like static on a monitor, before fading into the background again.

So is there hope, or are we stuck in this cycle of anxiety forever? I’m not going to pretend — as some might — that we’re all headed for the sunlit uplands in 2020 and beyond (see above, re: pessimism). But there is one trend from 2019 that I want to mention in relation to this, and that is the expanding choice on offer to podcasters working on all scales.

An individual or a team with a great idea for a show now have more alternatives than ever for where they can take it. There are more networks and platforms to pitch, with more money to spend. Direct monetisation options are opening up all over the place too — I’ve written about some of them this year already.

If you don’t want to explore advertising, it’s no longer the case that you just have to stick a PayPal ‘donate’ button in the sidebar of your website and hope for the best. Products like Supporting Cast, Glow and others are opening up premium feeds and payment processing mechanisms beyond just large publishers. There’s still a long way to go in this area (there’s still too much friction for podcasts wanting to offer paying listeners paywalled or bonus material) but substantial progress has been made already.

However, just because there is more choice of how to monetise a podcast, it doesn’t necessarily follow that more people can be properly compensated for their work. There are more contracts floating around, but also more potential for creators without the means to pay for legal advice to accept deals that aren’t all they should be. For every amply Patreon-supported show out there, there’s a dozen pages where goals aren’t met and the pledges aren’t into three figures. There are podcatchers that now allow you to accept donations directly, but that doesn’t mean the money will come flooding in.

All of which is to say, I think more choice for podcasters is an excellent thing, but I’ll never stop being sceptical about how much money it might make them. The freakouts won’t stop; things are changing and it won’t all be for the better, because nothing ever is. But if I could leave anything behind in 2019, it would be that background hum of anxiety about the state of podcasting I’ve felt for most of the year. An attitude of inquisitive curiosity is what I’m going for instead. Asking the right questions will matter more than ever, as this thing shifts and changes again in the months to come.