Issue 219,  published July 23, 2019

Peaks and Valleys

By now, you’ve probably encountered, or at least heard about, that New York Times article floating around last week with an eye-catching lead anecdote — which centered on an individual who started and ended a podcast with less-than-realistic expectations relative to effort — and an equally eye-catching headline: “Have we hit peak podcast?” (I’m quoted in the piece, by the way.)

The piece caused a bit of a ruckus, rubbing some podcast folk the wrong way. Part of the commotion, I think, comes in part from a general frustration with the assumptions held by the podcaster in the lead anecdote: namely, the notion that “podcasting is easy because anyone can start one, and you can totally make money too.” This, I should say, is a notion that continues to be broadly pushed in certain corners of the podcast community, much to the chagrin of professionalizing producers that, in their pursuit of production contracts and proper advertising dollars, have to constantly fight against the idea that making high-achieving podcasts is easy. That notion, which is fanciful in the way that get-rich-quick schemes tend to be fanciful, remains a prominent remnant of podcasting’s blog-rooted historical identity, and it continues to be a lingering spectre that materially impacts the day-to-day of the community’s professionalizing class.

(I should also say: this is separate and apart from the broader culture of DIY podcasting, i.e. folks who make podcasts for fun with comparatively practical expectations around audiences and monetization. Everybody should feel free to make whatever they want. I’m just saying: the audience and money parts of this gig are meant to be hard.)

The other thing that rankled some podcast people, I think, is an interpretation of the article that sees it as presenting a specific type of podcast creator — the one motivated by the assumption of ease — as adequately representative of the whole community. The question is asked in response: why is this person, and this person’s very particular experience, being taken to be the face of what I do? And why are those things being taken to say something broader about the fate of my business?

Reasonable questions, all. In reality, the podcast ecosystem is made up of many different kinds of creators: professionals and hobbyists, journalists and aspiring influencers, institutionally-trained and self-taught, real estate warblers and fiction podcasters. And so it is understandably bothersome when one of those segments is made to say something general about everyone else.

For what it’s worth, I thought the piece started out in the direction of maybe saying something interesting about a specific type of podcaster. But it didn’t quite land the plane, and furthermore, by virtue of imprecise framing, it ran into the acute difficulty of adequately capturing a wide universe of constituencies and experiences within a single article. (I imagine a similarly-shaped critique can be applied to the “let’s hang out at a diner to know what rural America is thinking” genre of political reporting.) That podcasting is many different operating realities often squished into one word is a challenge in representative identity: at the end of the day, who gets to rep?

Anyway, I suspect the thing that most bothered me about the article is the thing that bothered others the least (because I’m a big ol’ nerd): the fact that it didn’t actually address the concept of “peak podcast,” whether we’re there yet, and what are the ramifications. Two summers ago, I wrote a column working through that very concept, speculating a scenario in which the ever-increasing abundance of podcast supply ultimately breaks the structural integrity of podcasting’s current business trajectory and future potential. I think many of the ideas — in particular, how the continuously expanding supply will increase the need for granular reorganization, differentiation, marketing costs, and quality thresholds — still hold up, if they haven’t already borne themselves out. But I’ll let you decide that.