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On “Low Barriers to Entry”

There was a familiar line in the intro to TIME’s “Best Podcasts of 2018” list that came out last week, perhaps you’ve heard of it: “Unlike film, television or music, there’s a low barrier to entry in the podcasting world: All you need is a microphone and someone to speak into it.”

It’s a stubbornly persistent idea — the notion that, theoretically speaking, all you’d need to make a podcast is a voice recording app on your phone and the ability to add an mp3 file to an RSS feed, podcasting is a more accessible kind of media than, say, television or radio.

This idea is widespread across podcast coverage within general interest publications over the past few years, to the point where it feels like it’s been accepted without further comment. It’s just one of those things people say about audio, like the fact that it’s an “intimate medium,” or that it needed Serial-sized hit to take it mainstream.

Full disclosure, lest I come off too holier-than-thou: I’ve written all of these things myself in pieces more than once, without really thinking about what I actually mean by them. Which is to say, the point of this column is not to shade anyone who has ever thought or written or used those phrases. Rather, I’d like to pause and take stock of this idea that podcasting is more accessible than other types of publishing, and see if it really measures up to the audio world as we find it today.

To be frank: I do feel like there’s a grain of truth in this idea. In theory, you can use a voice memo app, or something like Anchor, and record straight into a phone, edit a bit and then upload your file to a host to distribute it as a podcast. You don’t need to know how to operate a fancy mixing desk or meet a network executive in order to get your podcast listed in the Apple Podcasts store. So in that most basic sense: yes, the barriers to entry are low. (It is worth remembering, though, that you can also put a video on YouTube or an essay on a blog in the same way, so even on a literal level this ease of use isn’t a unique facet of podcasting. Welcome to the internet!)

But then there’s the issue of quality. Just because you can create a podcast in this easy, did-it-on-a-whim-on-the-bus-home kind of a way doesn’t necessarily mean it will garner you any listeners. Quality speaks, and the resources that tend to engender quality are most likely to be found in the offices of the increasing number of professional podcast publishers. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t remember the last time a genuine garage-made podcast by someone with no previous connections or fame in the broader media sphere made it big.)

Whether you buy into the Serial boom or not (which remains, interestingly enough, a contested idea in some corners of podcast-land), it’s indisputably the case that more people listen to podcasts in 2018 than they did five years ago, and that general awareness of the form is higher. As a result, you could infer that listeners nowadays have more choice and are more discerning. The opportunity for a new podcaster with ambitions to one day top the charts to spend a dozen episodes learning how to use their editing software and find their voice is much diminished. To have a chance at turning a show into something successful, and by which I mean in this instance something financially and creatively sustainable, it generally has to hit its mark early on. That isn’t a low barrier, I think.

And of course the flip-side of the “all podcasts have equal chances of becoming successful” thesis is that all podcasts are competing equally for the same real estate in listeners’ smartphones. To those who made them, the difference between an NPR production and their friend’s mum’s cooking show might seem obvious, but from the consumer’s perspective, the initial choice whether or not to download them doesn’t necessarily feature such a wide chasm.

This idea of “success” is interesting to me. What do we mean by a “successful” podcast? For the plenty who make audio professionally, the conversation tends to revolve around talk of revenue and downloads in the hundreds of thousands. For those who record and edit in their spare time, it might simply be being able to cover their costs through a crowdfunding campaign, or just getting a half hour episode out every month for their friends to hear. These two states are worlds apart, but the fact that both tend to get lumped together sometimes undermines this idea of podcasting’s accessibility.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that we kind of want to infer a rags to riches story from this strange little world we inhabit. We like to think that this isn’t an industry with commercial motivations and implicit biases like any other, but instead a new way of doing things. Maybe it’s analogous to the blind belief in the idea that talent is all you need to make it in Hollywood that has young people moving to LA and endlessly waiting tables to their middle age. We like the idea that, theoretically, anyone talking to a friend into a smartphone could be about to release the next WTF with Marc Maron, even though there are a lot of practical and structural reasons why that probably isn’t the case.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting podcasting to be open to everyone, quite the reverse. The difficulty creeps in, I think, when the unquestioned assumption that there are few barriers standing between the amateur and audio superstardom leads to a lack of critique of the industry as it is. As has been written about plenty of times before, the professional arm of podcasting and radio exhibits many of the same gender, race and class discriminations as other parts of the media. There aren’t enough points of entry full stop, let alone for those without personal contacts already in the business or the private money to support themselves through years of internships and badly paid low level gigs.

While the technological barriers to podcasting might remain low, I don’t think it’s the case anymore that a homegrown, amateur podcast can become a commercial success overnight, (If it ever could, I’m deeply unsure about this). The lingering belief in this fairytale could well be holding back a more productive, concerted effort to genuinely improve access to the space. Structural change, difficult and slow as it can be, is what will really lower the barriers to achieving podcasting success.