Issue 221,  published August 6, 2019

This again?

From Fast Company, almost exclusively citing Podtrac’s monthly ranker:

It’s estimated that there are more than 700,000 active podcasts today. While the low barrier to entry has given rise to the running joke that everyone has a podcast, the saturated market can make it difficult to grow an audience.

One thing that might help: Build a multi-million-dollar radio empire first and then segue into podcasting.

Every time Podtrac, the long-running service that verifies podcast analytics for publishers, pops up in this newsletter, I make it a point to link to my older columns on the service that points out the caveats, like so: (here, here, and here.)

That’s because Podtrac’s industry rankers continue to be structurally incomplete representations of the overall podcast industry. This is true back when I wrote those columns in 2016, and it remains true to this day. As a reminder, those rankers only list publishers that sign up to participate in Podtrac’s measurement system — a requirement that involves Podtrac having full access to their numbers, which not every publisher is comfortable with, which in turn is why we don’t see comprehensive participation — while the show rankers purport to equally display shows from publishers that participate in their service and shows from publishers that don’t (with the download counts for non-paying publishers said to be “determined by a proprietary Podtrac algorithm which uses publicly available data”), though the reliability of that claim is anybody’s guess.

However, despite their incomplete nature, Podtrac’s rankers remain the only easily accessible industry rankers out in the public, which is why they become a natural point of reference for reporters looking to quickly grasp a narrative on the podcast industry… and in doing so, likely under-weighing the implications of their incompleteness. And so we continue to have things like this Fast Company write-up, which acknowledges the opt-in nature of Podtrac rankers but doesn’t fully play out what that means. As such, you end up with the perpetuation of narratives like the one contained in the article’s kicker:

For all the talk about radio being disrupted by the rise of podcasting, seems like thus far radio is making the transition quite nicely.

… which sounds profound, but doesn’t actually tackle the sticky realities. (For one thing, calculating the monthly unique audience per show averages reveal noticeable disparities between publishers that aren’t adequately reflected by the rankings. And for another, the path of old-school radio giants versus public radio giants are very, very different, and so are the effectiveness of those paths.)

To be clear: I’m not dismissing the idea that old-school radio empires are in the process of effectively claiming dominant spots in the podcast space. I do think there may well be an interesting story somewhere about how some old-school radio companies are seeing success in efforts to buy their way into podcasting as means to access relevance and structural growth. But Podtrac’s rankers aren’t by themselves adequate sources of information to tell that story, even if that story ends up being true.

Of course, this over-privileging of Podtrac’s rankers are just perfectly fine for Podtrac and participating publishers: after all, Podtrac continues to get more attention as the publisher of “the industry’s only podcast rankings” and participating publishers get to walk off looking like they’re the unambiguous kings of this new universe. There’s a strong alignment here for the two sides to keep this image going, when the truth is a little stickier, particularly within a podcast universe that persists in a state of data scarcity. Sure, NPR is definitely a massive podcast publisher, but are they the biggest? Not necessarily. But they, along with the other publishers on the ranker, still get to benefit from the broken narrative nonetheless.

Look: I’ve been writing versions of this rant again and again over the years. And it looks like I’m still going to have to keep writing this rant for years and years to come. I hate that this is the case, but screw it, who else is going to do it. NPR? iHeartMedia? Naw.

(On the flip-side, who am I to say anything about the machinations of these money-making enterprises? Who died and declared me referee? You tell me.)