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Column: The Same As It Ever Was

For as long as I’ve been writing this newsletter, there has always been talk about the podcast bubble. Indeed, the first time I spoke at a podcast panel, at an alumni event for my alma mater back in February 2015 at WNYC’s Greene Space in Manhattan, the moderator, who now leads a fairly notable podcast operation, kicked off the discussion with the question: “Is this a bubble?” Again, that was 2015, and while the bubble narrative largely settled into the background during the intervening years, in many ways, its shadow — that much of podcasting’s popularity, gains, and value are largely fragile, fleeting, or fictitious for whatever reason — has never stopped looming over everything.

Over the past week, the bubble narrative stepped into the spotlight once again, with some observers stringing together the stories of the BuzzFeed audio team layoffs, Panoply’s phasing out of its editorial division, and Audible’s elimination of its podcast-style production team to establish a gloomy narrative.

So, here’s the thing: I do think there’s been bubble-like behavior here in podcast-land, but those three stories have nothing to do with it at all. Here’s how I read them:

  • BuzzFeed’s position in audio should be considered limited at best, despite what I’d argue were out-sized early returns that the company didn’t end up capitalizing upon.
  • Panoply laying off of its editorial team marks a divestment from content, and its refocusing on “merely distributing podcasts” is more accurately a wholesale commitment to developing next-generation podcast advertising technology. It’s also important to note that its sister company, Slate, is more committed to audio now than ever before.
  • Audible’s machinations appear to chiefly be the result of a vision-shift related to executive reshuffling — and that Audible’s various original content experiments, in any case, don’t really say much about the podcast business, given the specificity of its business model.

In any case, it’s worth remembering that any wholesale evaluations of the podcast industry should probably consider the health of podcast-first companies that bear the strongest headwinds for market downturns: places like Stitcher, Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, Wondery, Radiotopia, the suite of boutique podcast agencies, and so on. (And not to mention big solo shops like The Joe Rogan Experience.) One also needs to consider the health of podcast divisions in non-audio-first media companies that have actually capitalized on previously developed podcast successes: The New York Times, The Ringer, Vox Media, and so on. And let us not forget public radio, that old segment: NPR, Serial Productions, member stations, and so on.

Those evaluations should also, I think, consider what the podcast advertising community is thinking. I spoke to a few sources over the past week, and the emerging narrative I heard is a little different: that the industry is “maturing,” that advertising demand is continuing to grow, that their demands are likely to evolve as the podcast ecosystem continues to evolves. iHeartRadio’s acquisition of Stuff Media featured prominently in our exchanges; though it’s unclear to many what that move means for podcasting, they appear to be reading it as a positive.

Which is all to say: if there is a podcast bubble, the aforementioned three stories aren’t your indicators.

It’s up to you to decide if the existence of a podcast bubble should take up your concern. The significantly more tangible and pressing question, I’d argue, isn’t whether podcasting is a bubble, but whether podcasting remains open, broadly defined. A long time ago, a really smart person (whose identity I’ve completely forgotten, I’m so sorry) told me that the principal puzzle of podcasting lies in the fact that because it has an extremely low barrier to entry, it has an extremely high barrier to scale. And what I think we’re seeing with the BuzzFeed and Panoply stories — leave aside Audible, come on — is a moment where that latter barrier fully express itself, or perhaps growing worse as the space becomes even more competitive.

That problem, of openness, has always been core to what we’ve been talking about all this time.