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Mid-Year Check-In

We were on track to have a very different kind of 2020. That’s an obvious understatement, but it’s a statement worth making nonetheless.

Podcast listenership had continued to grow at a steady and dependable pace. According to the latest Infinite Dial report, an estimated 104 million Americans over the age of 12 now identify as monthly listeners. That’s up 16 percent year-over-year, with the further distinction that monthly podcast listenership now exceeded 100 million Americans for the first time.

On the business side, podcasting started the year on track to meet its projection of hitting $1 billion in advertising dollars by 2021, a benchmark that remains an important talking point among those who work on the revenue side. Furthermore, there was a specific number that collective podcast ad revenue was supposed to reach this year: a little over $860 million, according to the most recent IAB/PwC study that was published last June.

Meanwhile, this was also supposed to be the year where Spotify continues to dictate the terms of the podcast industry’s narrative, controlling the pace with a steady drip of deal announcements and feature rollouts. For a moment, that absolutely seemed to be the case. Back in February, the company kicked off the year by acquiring The Ringer, Bill Simmons’ podcast-centric digital media company, in a deal that’s reportedly valued up to $250 million. It was meant to set the tone for the kind of year we were going to have.

And then, of course, the world changed. The novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic on March 11 — the very same day the NBA suspended operations after a player was confirmed to have contracted the virus, and the day Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were also reported to have tested positive.

Shortly after, coronavirus podcasts began to pop up everywhere, and several states began implementing social distancing and lockdown measures in order to control the spread of the virus. One noteworthy consequence of those lockdowns was a widespread transition among podcast publishers towards remote production. That practice remains the norm today, though some have trickled back into on-site studio production, albeit with the limited capacity you’d expect from a risk-managed workplace.

Another noteworthy consequence was the collapse of the daily commute, long understood to be one of the most important contexts for podcast consumption. The numbers bore that out, at least in the beginning. According to Podtrac data — which isn’t comprehensive, of course, but still useful in its capacity to tell a contiguous story over time — weekly downloads and audiences started declining following the initial implementation of social distancing measures, though it never ended up actually wiping out the listening gains of the year so far.

That decline would be short-lived, as listening ultimately began to inch back up by the end of April. By the end of May, audience numbers were directionally back on track, so much so that Podtrac opted to retire its weekly coronavirus update at the start of June. (For what it’s worth, I retired this newsletter’s recurring Pandemic Watch segment a week later.) Meanwhile, listening habits were also found to be adapting. According to the pandemic section in Stitcher’s recent podcasting report, the company found that while listening during weekday community hours decreased, listening during lunchtime hours seemed to be peaking, suggesting that audiences have found another primary way to integrate podcasts into their lives.

It was a hopeful development, but the reality is that you could still argue the case in either direction: Americans spending more time at home generally means they have more time to consume media, which might mean that podcasting has to compete more aggressively with other media options in the home, but it might also mean that those with strong affinity for podcasts actually get more opportunities to listen to more stuff.

Anyway, despite the recovery in listening, the podcast business continues to face severe challenges. Most importantly, the economic picture remains bleak, with the unemployment rate in the United States now clocking in at around 13 percent. In my initial write-up on the pandemic’s impact on the podcast business, back in mid-March, the primary anxiety was around whether we’d see debilitating cuts in podcast advertising spends, and whether that would result in the closure of many podcasts and podcast publishers.

When I checked in with several sales and advertising sources recently, a general consensus seemed to emerge: things have looked pretty bad, but not as bad as initially anticipated, and there have been some signs of recovery over the past few weeks. There’s some variance, of course, and to an extent, it’s been a predictable story of haves and have-nots. Publishers with a higher proportion of brand-name shows tend to have weathered the storm with relatively little disruption; others haven’t even started to see any form of the aforementioned recovery. Some have continued to sign new advertisers, others have taken this as an opportunity to start weaning off advertising altogether and push harder into direct revenue. Almost everyone agrees that the industry’s ad revenue projection won’t be met this year, let alone $1 billion by 2021. Virtually everyone agrees that more uncertainty lies ahead, particularly as the pandemic continues to run rampant in the United States, which is consistently proving to be incapable of managing the spread.

The pandemic wasn’t the only event that shook the world, of course. The killing of George Floyd in late May sparked a wave of anti-police brutality protests across the United States and elsewhere, and triggered a broader reckoning about anti-black racism and racial inequity in every almost corner of society. In the podcast world, shows about race bubbled up the charts, and some took action: Renay Richardson, the founder and CEO of the UK-based Broccoli Content, launched the Equality in Audio pact, a campaign that’s meant to push audio companies to commit to five simple actions as a starting point towards greater inclusivity.

Eventually, the podcast community’s own issues with race and inequity would primarily manifest around two separate but interrelated issues. The first is the issue of ownership over intellectual property: specifically, the question of what companies owe creators who work for them or collaborate with them on discrete projects, especially when it comes to black creators and other creators of color who are more likely to be exploited in those arrangements due to greater structural inequities. We’ve primarily covered two particularly visible examples of this issue last week, one being the tension between BuzzFeed and the former hosts of Another Round, and the other being the tension between the hosts of The Nod and Gimlet Media. But it should be emphasized that those are just the most visible examples; there are certainly countless more of such frictions quietly happening with many other shows and in many other organizations. (To be sure, this is a foundational problem that affects talent of all demographics. Consider the friction between Barstool Sports and Call Her Daddy that flared up in mid-May, and if you’d like to go back even further, you could theoretically even sort the story of Mystery Show into this narrative.)

To address a counter-argument I’ve been seeing a lot since last week: yes, companies do tend to shoulder the bulk of the risk when it comes to many of these projects, and yes, they have the right to benefit from any gains that come out of that risk. But when assessing who “deserves” what in what proportion, it’s important not to downplay what the creator or the worker puts on the line as well: they are investing their labor, their time, their creative energy, and in some cases, their very identities. They carry their own risk, and they are giving more in proportion to what they have. As such, it should not be disputed that they have every moral right to a meaningful stake of what they make.

The second issue has to do with institutional support; in this context, how podcast and media companies — predominantly white and white-led — hire, retain, and support black workers and other workers of color. I believe the emphasis on institutions is crucial here. Podcasting, of course, is structurally defined by its open publishing structure, but the capacity for historically disadvantaged demographics to advance in this open (and saturated) context tends to be considerably influenced by the conduct of institutions. Media companies greenlight, finance, and de-risk projects; a large portion of their decision-making involves the allocation of resources. Put simply, media companies can be viewed as monopolies on opportunity, and so it’s imperative that those who govern those companies ensure that sufficient opportunities get to flow to the kinds of creators who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access those opportunities on their own.

We’re seeing this issue play out publicly with The Ringer. Last week’s report from the New York Times illustrated a number of things about the company — how there is a lack of black decision-makers, how there is a low percentage of black workers on staff, how more than 85 percent of speakers on The Ringer’s podcasts (its most valuable and visible assets) are white — all of which collectively portray an environment where some or many black staffers would find hard to be around. Again, this is just one of the more visible examples; this problem is undoubtedly present in countless other podcast and media organizations. (One other case bubbling up that’s intriguing to me: WAMU.)

I should say: it also seems to be a problem at KPCC, with whom I partner to produce my podcast through their LAist Studios division. In a recent Twitter thread, Misha Euceph — a former staffer who worked on The Big One and created Tell Them, I Am — described her experience developing the latter project at the station, and it wasn’t positive. Euceph’s thread tells a story of working within an institution that couldn’t understand where she’s coming from, where she felt under-supported as a worker of color, and where she ultimately felt exploited out of the show she made. For the record, I have had very different experiences working with KPCC — frankly, it’s been pleasant — but the difference perhaps illustrates the point: Misha and I are at different places and leverage points in our respective relationships with KPCC, and the thing that should warrant the most focus here is how institutions handle and structurally relate to its most vulnerable workers, creators, and talent.

Both these issues speak to a core question about the identity of the podcast business: is it going to replicate older power structures and carry over the sins of old, or will it actually follow through on its potential to become genuinely new — and more humane — from the ground-up? This question, I think, will be increasingly more important as the podcast industry continues to change in the pandemic era. As mentioned earlier, the story of the pandemic-era podcast business has broadly been a story of haves and have-nots, which means that a likely outcome is an environment where the big get bigger and more power gets concentrated within a corporate few. Under those conditions, the pool of actors that facilitates opportunity gets smaller and smaller, and as history is our guide, the leadership groups behind those kinds of actors don’t tend to be very diverse.

Meanwhile, Spotify’s march onward continues apace. After acquiring The Ringer, Spotify proceeded with its steady drip of deal announcements and feature rollouts: finally bringing This American Life onto the platform, dipping its toe back into video, announcing exclusive deals with Warner Bros, DC, and Kim Kardashian-West, slowly pushing forward with next steps in ad tech and user experience. And of course, signing a multi-year licensing deal with The Joe Rogan Experience, valued at over $100 million.

What Spotify fundamentally represents hasn’t changed, even as the podcast world around it has: it is the embodiment of a capitalistic force pushing podcasting towards further corporatization. Critics would argue that Spotify’s ambitions threaten to strip podcasting of everything that made it special: its democratic nature, its quirkiness, its sense of possibility. Admirers (and beneficiaries) argue that Spotify is the player that will bring podcasting to the next level: more money, more stardom, more power.

One thing I’m interested to see is how Spotify interfaces and grapples with the emerging politics of this moment. After all, the company is now the exclusive home of The Joe Rogan Experience, which comes with a history of deep, deep controversy. It’s the owner of The Ringer, embroiled in its aforementioned problems with diversity, and Gimlet Media, which is working through the aforementioned intellectual property dispute with The Nod. And I should say, it’s not lost on many that all four of Spotify’s podcast acquisitions — Gimlet Media, Anchor, Parcast, The Ringer — resulted in infinitely richer white men, and only white men.

So that’s the basic story of podcasting in the mid-way point of 2020. It’s still defined by the fundamental tension between Spotify and Apple — or, if you prefer, between Spotify and the classic open ecosystem — but it’s also been vastly reshaped by a global pandemic, and increasingly refined by a stunning political moment.