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Who reviews the reviewers?

There are certain questions about the podcast business that come around again and again. One of them is to do not with the audio industry itself, but the way its products are covered in the wider media: essentially, why aren’t there more podcast reviewers?

There are certain questions about the podcast business that come around again and again. One of them is to do not with the audio industry itself, but the way its products are covered in the wider media: essentially, why aren’t there more podcast reviewers? The query was raised again in a recent post by the London-based producer Nick Hilton, in which he explores some of the failings of podcast coverage and looks at why there isn’t a Rotten Tomatoes-esque aggregator for podcast criticism. “The answer, I think, is quite simple,” he says. “There aren’t many reviews of podcasts.”

People who exist inside podcast-land are perpetually frustrated that only a handful of major publications run regular podcast criticism and that most barely mention the medium at all. And the small amount of podcast coverage that does appear often takes the form of brief, sometimes recycled lists that I suspect are mostly published for SEO reasons — e.g. “ten new true crime podcasts to try” — or a recurring, entry-level “what even is podcasting?” package. I’ve shared in this irritation myself: I’d love there to be more places I could pitch to write reviews and maybe have my own podcasts critiqued. Just as it’s universally accepted that podcasts have a discovery problem, it’s probably just as universal that there needs to be more podcast reviews.

But as I read Hilton’s piece, I started to question this assumption for the first time. Sure, it would benefit me, someone who writes about and makes podcasts, if there were suddenly as many podcast critics as there are film critics. But outside of that bubble I mentioned, who would it benefit?

The more I’ve thought about this, the more convinced I’ve become that there’s probably about the right amount of podcast reviewing going on, given the size and scale of the industry and the number of listeners it serves. There are some notable critics working on audio, such as Sarah Larson of the New Yorker, Miranda Sawyer of the Observer, Fiona Sturges at the Financial Times, and one Nick Quah in Vulture, but the space and freedom they have is the exception rather than the rule.

Important note: I’m not saying that individual mainstream media publications don’t ever get things wrong or overlook important aspects of culture — far from it. But collectively, across different countries and cultures, they’re not universally terrible at picking up on trends and — in the era of advanced web analytics — providing what their readers want. That is, after all, all that remains of their business model.

I used to have a gig writing about podcasts for the website of a UK magazine, and that column petered out because it didn’t attract enough of a readership. (My own experience isn’t definitive by any means of course.) I didn’t like it, but I could accept that perhaps my in-depth thoughts on podcasts most people had never even heard of weren’t exactly raking in traffic. We can argue separately about how publications shouldn’t make decisions about what they publish based on web traffic, but in most cases, it’s just the reality of the display advertising-based world we live in.

Given that, it’s interesting to me to think about why this question is so persistent inside the podcast industry. I recognise part of the attitude behind it as a desire for seriousness and recognition. Both are totally legitimate feelings, of course. Because of podcasting’s relatively recent, quasi-hobbyist beginnings, it’s natural that those who now practise it professionally would want it to be regarded on a par with other forms that do attract more regular reviews, like film or television. And I do think there’s some justification in that, because some publications are still stuck on the “which microphone should you buy” part of the podcast story while there’s some outstanding work out there that deserves wider attention.

However, my hesitations all stem from the question of scale. The 2019 scene setting piece from earlier this week has all the relevant numbers here, so I’m not going to quote them all again, but let’s just say that I think the coverage of podcasting is roughly keeping pace with its rate of consumption among the larger population. (Obviously, I’m estimating that anecdotally, if you want to do a proper analysis do send me the results).

I also don’t think it’s quite right to link up podcasting’s discoverability problems with the fact that podcasts don’t get reviewed to the same extent as films. I know it’s a hotly debated issue, but I personally consider discoverability to be three parts a tech issue and one part an awareness issue. Reviews might help a bit with the latter (although everyone who’s ever had their show featured in a review will tell you that while it might produce a nice temporary numbers bump, it’s not an automatic ticket into the stratosphere), but they do nothing on the former. Even if you do suddenly get a podcast review in every newspaper, it’s still not going to reduce the number of steps a reader has to take to actually load up an episode on their phone. Better curation and feature systems inside apps could arguably do more to drive new listeners to under appreciated shows than a few hundred words here or there in the legacy media.

That said, there are plenty of things I would change about the podcast reviewing status quo. It would be nice if more publications had a publicly available submission system and reviewing policy, so that podcasts of all sizes had a better chance of being considered for inclusion. I would appreciate it if obvious podcast cliches were avoided, and instruction on how to start your own show was kept in a separate article rather than being muddled into reviews. Ditto industry commentary, although I do accept that sometimes it’s the behind the scenes angle that is the reason why the show is being written about at all. More than anything, though, I wish we could all stop minding so much exactly how many column inches are devoted to our shows.