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Insider: March 12, 2020

Prepping for the time ahead. Well that was a surreal tipping point-esque 24-hour stretch, at least here in the US. (Shout-out to certain other parts of the world, where it’s been surreal and dicy for quite some time now.)

Okay, so, these are anxious times. Relatedly, these are also going to be times where corona-takes are going to come flying at you from all story angles. And rightly so: we’re living through what is undeniably a world-shaking event, so from a media ecosystem perspective, everyone’s working to figure out consequences for their specific corner of the universe, if they’re not responsible for communicating the situation clearly and authoritatively from a macro-level. (To the latter folk: godspeed, and I appreciate you.)

Let me just say: Hot Pod will not be immune to this. Effects of this global story will make its way into our concerns, at one point or another. Earlier this week, I linked to two stories on the potential impact that coronavirus worries will have on broader advertising spends, effects of which will likely trickle down to podcasts. At this very moment, I’m working on a piece for Vulture on the spate of corona-pods that have popped up recently — how it evokes structural comparisons to the impeachment pod boomlet, but how it’s obviously different and holds significantly heavier risk in terms of misinformation. And I’m making plans to, at some point, build a story around the way various production teams are building distributed work-from-home arrangements, or at least link to good resources towards that effect. (Hit me up if you have something for this story.)

So, just wanted to give a heads up about that. Here in the States, we’re going through the phase where most folks are trying to cognitively weigh between the extent to which life will go on as normal and the extent to which life will be radically reshaped, at least temporarily, and as such, I wanted to acknowledge that we’re working to be editorially alive to that mass processing. We won’t be forcing these stories, but we’ll be responsive when these stories force their way onto us.

(As a side note, for what it’s worth, I belong to the school of thought that absolutely everybody should be taking this extremely seriously, even if you live in a state — or a community — that hasn’t been directly affected yet. Wash your hands extensively, obviously, practice social distancing, and constantly check in with your loved ones, especially if they’re at-risk.)

Whoof, okay, heavy stuff. On a lighter note, I’ve been getting some messages from folks pontificating — loftily, sorta in the manner that various wafty VC types tend to try to do on Twitter, but really in the manner of late night college dorm hangouts — about the impact that widespread work-from-home precautions will have on podcast listening as whole. From these folks, there appears to be an emerging consensus: such precautions may result in a slowdown of podcast production… and translate into more podcast listening.

Not that I care about this question… but, I mean, look, pontification can cut in all directions. One could equally imagine that more working from home would result in more people figuring this is a great time to start their podcasts, and that more podcast listeners, unburdened by commutes or working out or whatever, figuring out this would be a good time to binge the Brazilian version of The Circle.House of Mattresses. Been seeing this article — a fantastic Maya Kosoff piece on the VC-powered direct-to-consumer startup sector that’s beginning to implode, or at least grapple with its innately difficult economics that are even more difficult under VC expectations — passed around in certain podcast circles, and those circles have been experiencing some amount of anxiety due to the fact that podcast advertising tends to be highly associated with these kinds of companies. (In particular, long-time podcast ad staples Casper and Harry’s feature prominently in this write-up.) You know that joke smartasses like to make about the end of Casper/MeUndies/so on also being the end of podcasting? This is the perceived realization of that joke, hence the anxieties.

Kosoff’s piece is excellent, and you should definitely read the whole thing. But I do think any anxiety around the travails of this startup species and their impact on podcast advertising requires some interrogation. This could be a big deal, but it depends on the validity of the presupposition that podcast advertising as a whole remains critically dependent on this class of companies. And even if you did believe this to be true in, say, 2014, you would also have to believe the podcast advertising mix hasn’t meaningfully evolved and diversified since then.

But the question then, of course, becomes about the extent to which the podcast advertising spigot has evolved and diversified, and just how much of podcasting has been exposed to that diversification. Another to consider is what’s coming around the bend: the onward marches of podcast advertising marketplaces like Megaphone and Spotify’s Streaming Ad Insertion, where the downside could be the commodification of podcast advertising… but where the upside could be a quicker uptake by more types of advertisers, or so the argument would go.

Anyway, not to be that asshole, but if you want to be anxious about podcast advertising, I wouldn’t fixate on these DTC startups. Instead, I’d fixate on the economy as a whole. We appear to be heading into stormy economic waters, and what you tend to get with that is an environment where companies and marketers act more conservatively. Among the many ways this gets manifested, oftentimes this ncludes pulling back from spending on newer and/or more experimental marketing channels, favoring instead to run their money through channels they feel the most comfortable in or see the most immediately cost-effective returns from.

As far as I know, this could go either way for podcast-land. When I checked in with a few people on the ad side about Kosoff’s piece, a common received I got revolved around the notion that many existing podcast advertisers continue to view podcasting as a channel that still makes economic sense to them, in terms of how it much costs to buy into and how much they’re getting back for those spends. This balance could well change as we move forward in time, but how you feel about the prospects of podcast advertising in many ways depends on your faith in the underlying pitch of podcast advertising: that it’s uniquely intimate, uniquely high-engagement, yadda yadda yadda.

That said, if we do plummet deeper into rough economic territory, one thing we’ll get to find out just how much podcast advertising has been able to prove its worth to advertisers over the past few boom years. Perhaps enough brands have developed enough confidence in podcasting as a prudent marketing channel. Perhaps enough podcasts have proven themselves in the eyes of advertisers. Then again, perhaps not.

However things shake out, the reality is that not everybody’s going to be safe. One key characteristic of a boom time is an environment where money is easy to access. When times get tough, it will come down to the fundamentals. We’ll see about those fundamentals.