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The Podcast Academy

Last Friday, a group of podcast publishers and related operatives announced the formation of something called The Podcast Academy — not to be mistaken with what appears to be a semi-amateur Australian resource for podcasters of the same name — which they described as a non-profit organization dedicated to “elevating awareness and excitement for podcasts as a major media category and advancing knowledge and relationships in and around the business.”

Its various activities will involve things like holding educational webinars, organizing networking events, and publishing white papers, but its flagship endeavor seems to be an awards program, to be called the Golden Mic. (Between “Golden Mic” and the use of the word “academy,” the whole nomenclature strikes me as a little derivative and cringe-worthy, which perhaps doesn’t bode well for the endgame effort of “elevating excitement.” Then again, “Hot Pod.”)

The newly-formed body, which will be driven by membership, pitches itself as intending for both industry professionals and independent podcasters, however defined, to be its core constituencies. Its founding members include executives from Wondery, Stitcher, NPR, PRX, Tenderfoot TV, Spotify, and Sony Music, along with Criminal’s Lauren Spohrer, Spoke Media’s Alia Tavakolian, UTA’s Oren Rosenbaum, and Rekha Murthy, a former PRX exec turned independent operator. From what I can glean off how the idea originally came across my plate, and not to mention the framing in the Bloomberg report, Wondery’s Hernan Lopez seems to be the party leading the charge on this.

As the Variety write-up highlights, one noteworthy thing about this story are major podcast publishers who haven’t declared allegiance to the Podcast Academy, at least just yet. That list includes iHeartMedia (which, by the way, operates its own competing podcast awards, the New York Times, Entercom (which owns Cadence13 and Pineapple Street), Westwood One, and Luminary. The academy will start accepting applications for membership later in the spring.

As far as I can tell, the response to the announcement has been broadly accommodating — a handful of independent podcast sources have explicitly cited the involvement of PRX, something of an indie darling in certain circles, as a reason to be somewhat optimistic — but there are nonetheless pockets of skepticism. Much of that skepticism is rooted, understandably, in a familiar anxiety: that the academy, along with its awards system, may end up operating in such a way that creates structural advantages for its membership (and in particular, the companies of the people making up its governing body) to the zero-sum detriment of everyone that exists outside of membership.

In a fascinating parallel to broader platform monopoly worries, these concerns about the academy appear to be another expression of a more elemental fear: that power in podcasting, historically valued for its decentralized nature where any creator could ostensibly build a following and a business without having to negotiate with gatekeepers, would be consolidated in the hands of a relative few by virtue of this academy. In other words, there exists some theoretical concern that the Podcast Academy represents the formation of a true gatekeeper.

(Of course, one could argue that Apple, with its informal status as the ecosystem’s impartial steward, has long been podcasting’s historical gatekeeper. Such a perspective is now challenged, as the recent competitive overtures by Spotify suggest a shift away from this status quo. In any case, Apple hasn’t exactly operated as a true gatekeeper, acting instead as a kind of distant God: life-giving, but ultimately passive in the overt shaping of things.)

All these things put together represents another episode in an on-going tension that has come to define podcasting’s recent history: on the one hand, you have an ecosystem that, on average, would like to accelerate the growth of its stature, fortunes, and reputation in broader culture, but on the other hand, you also have an ecosystem that, in some corners, is worried about a consolidation of power to achieve those ends, whether it’s through the spendy machinations of Spotify… or the formation of a formal trade body like the Podcast Academy.

Let me say at this point that the body’s stated goal of “elevating awareness and excitement for podcasts” is, by itself, already quite a tall task. Beyond developing a competency in the simple base function of brand marketing, we’re essentially talking about the academy being in the business of manufacturing cultural currency, relevance, and prestige. A sense of “cool,” even. Now, I’m no reliable source in matters of cool — my preferred vehicle is a nondescript minivan, for practical reasons — but even I know the prospect of cultivating such a thing is laughably hard and complicated.

Beyond the default difficulty of its stated purpose, the newly-formed Podcast Academy must also contend with an even bigger challenge that’s specific to itself: it has to effectively develop some sense of legitimacy as a body that speaks for so-called industry professionals as well as independent podcasters. Justly or otherwise, those two things have largely been held in opposition to each other, a condition exacerbated by the ever-changing nature of the latter by virtue of its low-barriers-to-entry nature.

The task of conveying legitimacy is perhaps more straightforward when it comes to communities with substantial gatekeeping to begin with. Forgive the radical oversimplification, but when it comes to something like film or music, where the industrial story largely revolves around the formation of professional associations — typically grounded in historical control over high-cost production and distribution infrastructures, realities that aren’t true for podcasting — and the subsequent clustering of power among a relative few that control those infrastructures, the notion of “legitimacy” is more clearly ascribable because it’s eminently clear who holds monopoly over the force that shapes the industry, and therefore the industry’s narrative.

Who “legitimately” gets to represent podcasting is less clear. If you subscribe to the theory of legitimacy based on industry-shaping force, that lack of clarity rises from the fact that we’re at a moment where the podcast ecosystem’s underlying power dynamic has never been more fluid — Spotify vs. Apple, how podcast advertising is understood and sold, etc. etc. — and that the future of those things are still being fought over. Sure, any individual actor can step forward and attempt to claim legitimacy, but such attempts will likely be rendered inert fairly quickly. One such example of this would be iHeartMedia’s own attempt at a podcast award ceremony, now in its second year, which has raised eyebrows not only because we’re talking about an awards system where the facilitator is also a competitor — thus evoking questions over the robustness, integrity, and trustworthiness of its process — but also because we’re talking about a company that has yet to establish strong association with the core identity of podcasting in the broader culture.

Perhaps we will eventually arrive at a place where podcast industry-shaping power is ultimately held among a few, in which case all this blather about representational legitimacy will be rendered moot. Until then, the task for the Podcast Academy would be to establish legitimacy by assembling a meaningful coalition, one that adequately unites enough kingdoms between “industry professionals” and “independent podcasters” under a shared system of recognition.

There is, of course, a way to approach this task cynically, where the move would be to eschew being fully representative of the podcast universe as a whole, instead adhering to a strategy of building the buzziest possible coalition out of a willing few and cultivating environment where holdouts will ultimately see more benefits from participating than standing outside in the cold. History is written by the victors, after all.

But the involvement of PRX as a founding member in particular, which has historically advocated to preserve the open nature of podcasting, suggests that such a strategy isn’t on the cards. However, they’ll still have to contend with the complicated issue of representation for independent podcasters, itself rooted in a structural conundrum: how can a discrete few speak for the theoretically infinite?

That is a question that the Podcast Academy will probably have to really grapple with if it wants to go anywhere at all. Whether it’s through continuous and consistent provision of meaningful community support — the webinars, networking events, white papers, and so on — or through a system of awards and recognition that actually feels fair to all parties, the academy must make the case that it matters to podcasting before it can make the case that podcasting matters to everyone else.