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Notes on the Impeachment Pod Wave

To pick up what Caroline is putting down…

So, yeah, similar lines of questioning can be raised about how things have changed in the American podcast scene — or, specifically, the American news podcasting scene — since the last presidential election, and look, for better or worse, we’re already deep into the 2020 cycle. This whole impeachment pod boomlet isn’t just a prelude to the coming US election pod wave; it’s the very first chapter.

As Caroline pointed out, on this side of the Atlantic, the impeachment story is the news peg du jour for various American publishers looking to either dip their toes in news podcasting waters (if they’re new to the scene) or deepen their existing positions (if they already have an audio operation set up). And as mentioned, there are quite a few of them, a testament to both the buzziness of the audio category and the general orientation of modern major media companies to swing towards any lane that opens up for them with enthusiastic, often imprecise abandon.

You could broadly explain the trend with this Jody Avirgan quote from back in 2016, which I’ve re-used enough times in this newsletter now that I should probably get it tattooed on my back: “There’s this perfect storm of people who think that podcasting is an easy money thing, and there’s big news cycle event coming, and so they just put the two things together. I’m sure if this was Brazil and the World Cup was coming up, you’d see a lot of World Cup podcasts.”

Not that I can blame them. Here in the present, podcasting continues to look like easy money to a great deal of people (perhaps more so than ever), and within the specific impeachment pod lane, there is an ostensibly eager pool of American audiences interested in consuming more information and material about the story. A recent ABC/Ipsos poll found that 58% of Americans reported to be closely following the impeachment story. Specifically, 21% of Americans said they were following “very closely.”

But of course, the equation isn’t always straightforward with podcasting. While the interested audience pool demarcated by the ABC/Ipsos poll suggests a theoretical ~total addressable market~ for these impeachment podcasts, the reality is that the actual TAM is something more along the lines of: “How many Americans interested in consuming more news and information about the impeachment story will actually do so with new forms of media?” Which, in turn, can be further flipped into: “How many podcast-listening Americans are interested in consuming more news and information about the impeachment story?”

Let’s set this thread aside for now. When it comes to publishers new to audio, the creature logic can be articulated fairly easily: it’s hard to deadlift a viable operation in a brand new format, particularly if you don’t have prior experience, a cultivated talent pool, or anything resembling an existing brand presence in the category. But the impeachment story is an exceptionally strong, sticky, and extended news event that offers a possible gateway into the business.

The risk assessment here is one that sees the impeachment stories as so strong that it could well outweigh the publisher’s lack of experience, polish, or talent in the actual audio production department. If the gambit actually ends up working out, said publisher will have developed a foundation upon which they can go on to build out a viable audio business over time. My sense, though, is that most of these gambits will probably fail, because talent, polish, and the end-experience matters. You know, to state the obvious.

Switching over to the other end — that is, publishers with pre-existing daily news podcasts and audio operations more generally — there is a straightforward business incentive that may explain the move to spin out a standalone impeachment pod: another podcast feed means more ad inventory, which means more revenue. And, well, money is money, man, I get it.

Though I understand the business prop, I’m not particularly sold on whether it’s worth the trouble. Sooner or later, the impeachment story will reach a conclusion, one way or another. At that point, what should be done with the new podcast feed and the audience cultivated around it? Will it be flipped around for the next major news event of comparable magnitude? Will it just be converted into focusing on the elections proper? Will it just be pruned? Underlying all these queries is a bigger, fundamental question: why start a new feed when you can further strengthen the one you have in the first place? Why go through the trouble?

If you’re so inclined, there is also a broader editorial problem to grapple with, particularly when it comes to impeachment podcasts designed as extended deep-dive experiences. A version goes like this: deep-dive impeachment podcasts would likely mostly appeal to a certain kind of news consumer whose positions on the matter are probably already solid, in which case the net-effect of these products is to further root these audiences within the depths of their own modality. This may nevertheless be a worthwhile service and/pr business proposition, but the reality is that hour-long deep-dives don’t really have the capacity to change minds who weren’t already leaning hard in a certain direction. And the counter-argument to that would probably be: maybe “changing minds” is never actually the point with these projects.

In case anyone’s wondering: my personal product-oriented take is that there is probably more to gain in implementing shorter impeachment-centered tracking segments as part of the core daily news podcast episode build, as opposed to building out longer standalone deep-dive experiences. If you don’t have a pre-existing daily news podcast or general audio operation… well, I understand the impulse, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with an impeachment podcast. Or any podcast, really, unless you’re ready to genuinely make the investment in talent, experience, and experimentation over the long run. And if you do genuinely want to invest in all that and make n an impeachment pod, then it probably behooves you to be tighter, more specific, and more oriented towards whatever differentiated value you might be able to bring to the discourse.

Because the biggest impediment to rolling out an impeachment podcast is the fact that there are already so many of them — and on top of that, there are already so many generalized news and politics podcasts that already carry out much of the impeachment podcast work. Here, we can revive the ghost of the whole “there are too many podcasts” discourse, and return to the earlier thread: just how many potential listeners are there for these pods?

The way I see it, there are two ways to broadly think about the audience scenario. The first is the notion that each publisher has an audience so dedicated to the brand that they’ll be willing to try out various experimental new products by the publisher… in which case, these pods will be an opportunity to find out just how ~strong~ these brands are. (I should note, “publishers” in this instance can be equally applied to something like NBC News… all the way to an individual like Rudy Giuliani.)

The second is a mindset that views the potential audience as some amorphous roving blob of people with great interest in the impeachment story that will consume any and all forms of media about the story, in which case these pop-up impeachment podcasts are mere buckets propped up to catch as much of the blob as possible. (I’m calling this the “Giant Pool of Earballs” theory, and I’m probably going to evoke it against at some point in the future, because I have a feeling that this mode of thinking is fairly common.)

Anyway, I should probably wrap this up for now — I’m sure there’ll be infinitely more to say about impeachment, elections, and politics podcasts in the year to come. (Less than a year to the next presidential elections, y’all.) In the meantime, I’ll cap off by linking back to a column that I’ve been revisiting over the past few weeks: “Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?”