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A Tipping Point

The latest edition of the Infinite Dial — the long-running digital media study by Edison Research and Triton Digital that also give us the most reliable podcast audience sizing numbers — and, look, you probably heard the major podcast takeaways already. Heck, even the Times wrote about it, which I’m pretty sure means they’re going to put me out of business in a few months. (Here’s the piece if you want it: “Podcast Growth Is Popping in the US, Survey Shows,” featuring a picture of Slate producer Jayson De Leon sporting fine Brooklyn Nets merch.)

In the event you missed all that, here’s a link to the full report. You should, of course, read it in full, but here are the key takeaways to tide you by:

  • 70% of Americans aged 12+ are now familiar with the word “Podcasting.” However, as noted by Edison, awareness doesn’t necessarily mean comprehension; it’s entirely possible many of those Americans still don’t know what the word actually stands for;
  • 51% of Americans reported having listened to a podcast at least once in their lives. Which is to say, more than half of Americans have given this thing a shot. Doesn’t mean they stuck around, though, but the proportion of Americans who did stay appears to have risen…
  • 32% of Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month. To reframe in more pointed terms: almost a third of Americans can be considered active listeners;
  • There was growth in monthly listening across all studied age groups (noteworthy: age 12-24 jumped ten percentage points);
  • The average number of podcasts consumed in the last week among weekly podcast listeners has stayed at seven, same as the number reported last year. Worth noting that the number stayed the same despite the podcast listening growth across the board; that the number didn’t fall or dilute suggests that people are being properly indoctrinated into the medium;
  • This one’s really interesting: more than half (53%) of monthly Spotify users aged 12-24 report being monthly podcast listeners, up 32% last year. This means only good things for Spotify.
  • Podcasting grew slightly as the “audio source used most often in the car” — now at 4%, up from 3% last year. In contrast, AM/FM radio is now 52%, down from 56% last year.

“That’s the biggest growth we’ve seen, and we’ve been covering podcasts since 2006,” Edison SVP Tom Webster told the Times. “I think we hit a tipping point.”

Indeed, a tipping point is probably true, though, in more ways than one. Allow me to indulge in a big picture, which has the tendency to smooth edges and details.

In a few years, I reckon we’re going to look back at the top of 2019 as a particularly interesting moment in, uh, ~podcast history~. Probably not as “the moment podcast actually became mainstream” or some debilitating PR-speak like that, but something more subtle, cultural. In my mind, this moment feels like the end of an era that began in the fall of 2014: when we were first introduced to Serial, when we saw a new generation of people and companies start up their bids to figure this space out, and, most importantly, when podcasting’s ideological tenets (open publishing, freedom, etc.) was still at the center of its narrative of growth.

A lot can happen in the four years, and a lot did. Many from that 2014-2018 generation have effectively played out a full arc. We’ve seen acquisitions, cash-outs, pivots, reshuffles, the first batch of proper podcast celebrities. And though I’m sure we’re not done seeing all there is to see from this generation, it does very much feel like the space is now transitioning to a whole new beat. Let me put it this way: the companies of the previous era were largely founded without definitive evidence that you could build a considerable business in this space. Now there is evidence that money’s coming in, and everybody else knows it too.

We’ve seen versions of this story many times before: in music, in video games, in comic books, in cool neighborhoods, in hip smaller cities (RIP Austin), in everything that’s ever meant anything to anybody that may also be cool to other people too. What generally happens next is happening already: preexisting power moves in, catalyzing a long struggle over identity.

Frankly, I thought Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet, arguably the poster child of the 2014-2018 era, was going to be that catalyst, but instead, the flashpoint turned out to be Luminary, the upcoming paid podcasting platform that endeavors to be the *deep breath* Netflix for Podcasting. Let me tell ya: based on recent conversations I’ve had across some corners of the community, Luminary has attracted a level of bile I’ve never encountered before. There are probably two reasons for this: firstly, its business model (closed, paywalled) strikes at the ideological heart of the medium, which champions openness, and so the co-opting of the word “podcast” in this context has real political weight to it. (RadioPublic co-founder Matt MacDonald, on Twitter: “The word ‘podcast’ MUST NOT be applied to exclusive audio content locked up and only available in a single app.”) Secondly, there is also a complicating dimension to the fact that the company’s principal tool of participating in the podcast ecosystem is its sizable war-chest. After all, money remains something that doesn’t freely flow to a ton of podcasters, and so you could say that this is a scenario where the platform ends up putting certain podcasters in loaded situations: don’t take the money, continue to struggle to figure out how to keep the lights on; take the money, get flack for doing so. (See here for an example of this.)

And all that’s not to mention the fracas around Luminary’s brand messaging: “Podcasts Don’t Need Ads,” the company tweeted recently, inadvertently whinging on the primary revenue stream sustaining many a podcaster, independent and otherwise. (The tweet was ratio-ed for its troubles.) Intentional or not, Luminary’s very existence touched the two core nerves of the podcast community, and maybe it’s just me, but I’m getting the slightest of senses that it’s beginning to turn some corners of the community against each other. (Bears asking the question: why persist in using the word “podcasting” in the first place? Tech companies make silly new words up all the time. See: Twitter.)

Podcasting firmly lives in this identity struggle now. For what it’s worth, I always thought we were going to get to this point eventually, though I was perhaps a few years too early. There will be more Luminaries, there will be more money, there will be more people and capital and power that wants a piece of this pie. Who knows what any of this will look like at the end of this new era. In any case, the adolescent days are over.

I’ll be here writing about all of it — hopefully, maybe. Unless the Times or the Hollywood Reporter or The Verge or someone else pounds me out of existence, of course. Or unless I get so burnt out that I just, oh I don’t know, move out to a farm or something. Speaking of which…