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The Openness Litmus Test

A question that's been popping up more in conversations lately: how, exactly, would we know if podcasting is no longer as open as it once was?

I’ve been spending the week in the Bay Area barreling through a marathon of meetings and conversations (you know, as you do), and one question seems to be recurring in many of the discussions I’ve had over the past few days: how, exactly, would we know if podcasting is no longer as open as it once was?

The query appears tethered to rising anxieties about the ongoing surge of professionalization, industrialization, and capitalization that we’ve been seeing in the space for a number of years now. This isn’t a particularly new fear; indeed, it’s a variation of broader concerns about capitalism and inequality, how the two are often structurally intertwined, and the specific impact those two things have on creative and journalistic work. (Wow, I’m really whipping out my liberal arts cred here, apologies for that.) But it’s one that seems to be on a lot of people’s minds across the industry spectrum, and what feels new is this implication of a tipping point, and how we would actually know when we’ve passed it. A question of discrete measurement, in other words.

To state the obvious, I don’t have a clear answer to the question that I’m comfortable with. But the litmus test that I seem to reflexively gravitate towards is this: hypothetically speaking, can a small team with a very modest budget but gobs of talent still ride the current podcast infrastructure and go toe-to-toe with, say, WNYC Studios or Gimlet in terms of accruing a meaningful audience or pushing the culture?

(The particularly tricky part being the evaluation of the variable “gobs of talent.” A gaseous subject of study, that.) Historically, the most recent benchmark episode that I’ve been using to hold the question against could be found in the first quarter of last year, when we saw Missing Richard Simmons and S-Town come out around the same time.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

[Missing Richard Simmons], in many ways, came out of nowhere, and it’s a particularly strange production at almost every level. It was a real-time mystery but also a biography but also a confessional but also a piece of celebrity media. It was an extravagant exercise in building a boat mid-sail. It held no prominent names on the creative team — both Pineapple Street Media and First Look Media, I’d argue, carry virtually no weight with general audiences — and the marketing push was light-to-moderate, at best. It lay on the subject, the celebrity Richard Simmons, to carry the bulk of the weight as the audience draw, and even then, the actual potential return of that celebrity was probably hard to estimate at the time of release. But the show ended up being an undeniable hit despite all of that.

On March 28 [2017], a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release, which is a considerable feat that the show achieved with none of the advantages of This American Life that I previously mentioned. Missing Richard Simmons was the show, I think, that properly represented the opportunities of the space’s still-low barriers to entry, more so than S-Town.

The trouble with assessing the question this way, of course, is that we’re almost always working with exceptional examples in search of a rule. Or, to view it from another angle, perhaps that’s a litmus test specific to a distinct and relatively new form of podcast: the short-run, limited-series productions that seem to getting more focus, resources, and attention these days, and as a result, seems to be more likely to be determined as hits.

Of course, an industry isn’t built solely on its hits (… or maybe that should be more normative: an industry shouldn’t be built solely on its hits). And so what I’m wondering about now is how you’d test the question for shows that are meant to be on-going, bread and butter products — the stuff that continuously-running stuff that podcasting used to be mostly known for.

Or are we just becoming increasingly stuck in a world where the only way you can function is to optimize for hits? That, perhaps, is another kind of question about the space’s openness altogether.