It’s a shiny new year, and I spent some of the festive break trying to think myself out of the somewhat glum state in which I ended 2018. As I’ve been chronicling in this newsletter over the last few months, there have been a lot of developments in the UK podcasting scene that hint of bigger things to come, particularly in terms of both content and monetisation. Reporting on whether any of this actually comes to pass will be a big focus for me this year, and as such, I wanted to lay out the benchmarks I’ll be measuring the industry here against in the days to come.
Transparency About Pay. The audio industry in the UK (as in many other places) runs on people working freelance or on casual shifts. This is true across the board, from the BBC right down to the smallest production companies. Anecdotally, and from my own experience, I know that the level of remuneration for this kind of work can vary wildly, from substantial rates in places that have a podcast revenue strategy locked down, to barely-worth-it pay at outlets that still subscribe to the “it’s on the internet therefore I should pay you less” school of thought.
I won’t consider British podcasting to be a stable and sustainable industry until those working within it are paid adequately for their efforts, and transparency around rates will be key to making that happen. It’s all very well for executives to trumpet the success of their new apps, but while I’m still hearing stories from people who make podcasts about how they’re doing half their work on a commercially-released show for free because they were told “there isn’t any more budget,” I will continue to be sceptical about who that success is benefiting. I look to the BBC particularly for progress on this, since their license fee revenue comes with a duty towards financial transparency. If they are paying their producers fairly — and they publicise those rates — that could go a long way to setting the culture for other UK providers to emulate.
On The Box. The podcast-to-television pipeline is still very much in its infancy in the UK, and so far very few teams are seeing any of that sweet cash the US is so excited about. There’s some movement towards the “IP factory” model from individual production companies like Julian Simpson’s Storypunk (which I wrote about in an Insider in December), but the big broadcasters like the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky have yet to really get into this area.
In the next year, I hope to see that change so that a new monetisation avenue opens up for podcasters. While it would nice to see a Homecoming-style prestige fiction show on our screens — and I don’t see why something like the BBC’s conspiracy thriller podcast Tracks couldn’t make the leap, for instance — I’m trying to be realistic here. Nonfiction seems like an easier avenue to get started on this, perhaps with comedy or political specials. Basically, what I’m saying is that the next My Dad Wrote a Porno shouldn’t have to go to HBO to get on telly.
One Hit Wonder. Speaking of the Belinda Blinked chronicles, another thing I’d like to see in the next year is a shift away from fetishing the kind of success that My Dad Wrote a Porno has achieved. I’m as guilty as anyone of glibly describing shows as “the next X” (see previous item), but doing this does create the impression that there’s a linear, one-by-one queue of hit shows that have to emulate each other in order to do well. It would be great to see wider recognition of the fact that there’s lots of different ways to succeed, and that what constitutes a hit can vary massively for different genres and creators. I served as a judge on several awards programmes and podcast competitions last year, so I heard a lot of entries trying to copy existing shows rather than find their own form. Until we stop believing in the existence of a set recipe for a hit podcast, new entrants to the industry are going to keep feeling that they have to fit their ideas into pre-existing templates.
Career Pathways. Sometimes, I’m asked to give talks at various schools to students interested in podcasting, and one of the most popular questions I get asked afterwards is “how do I get a job doing this?” Usually, I have to admit that there isn’t really a straight answer — I suggest they start making and experimenting on their own, while doing their best to network with the kind of people who might be impressed by what they create and want to start paying them for it.
While there are a very small number of apprenticeships and training schemes grants for audio, I’m not yet aware of anything resembling a properly organised pathway to becoming a podcast producer that a young school graduate in 2019 might be able to discover and follow. While the industry still operates on a “who you know” networking model, any gains in terms of improving diversity will be limited.
In the next year, I’m hoping to see those with the cash launch new approachable and inclusive entry points to the industry, whether that’s in the form of bursaries for study, entry-level production jobs, or properly open pitching calls for talented producers who don’t yet have many credits. I really do believe that the first organisation to do this in a whole hearted, non-tokenistic way is going to win at the content game over the long term, because they’ll have new stuff that sounds like nothing else that’s out there.
A Third Way. Finally, my favourite hobby horse: how do you monetise in the UK outside of Acast and Audioboom? For the industry here to move into the next phase of maturity, we need a bigger market in ad marketplaces and providers. Whether that’s US outfits like Megaphone or Art19 opening up here, or homegrown companies stepping into the gap, I’m convinced that this is a crucial part of British podcasting’s next phase. It won’t change overnight, but I’d like to see one or two key launches in the next year that indicate that the options are widening.