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Year in Review: The New Independence

This year has done strange things to my memory. I can recall certain incidents with complete clarity — such as the face-to-face conversation I had with someone in early March about whether they should still fly overseas that weekend to attend a journalism conference, yikes — and yet I also struggle to remember what I wrote about for this very newsletter this time last week. All of which is to say, this season of year-end retrospectives has seemed like harder work than usual, because all the listening and writing that I did even a few weeks ago feels like it was work done by somebody else.

In another sense, though, this feeling of separation has provided a usefully dispassionate lens through which to view my own year covering podcasts. To this end, I’ve spent the last week reading back through my own archive on Hot Pod, noting the themes that preoccupied me at different moments. It’s been an instructive exercise, allowing me to come upon what I think is my main reflection on this year, which is that I think that independence is becoming attractive again, even for podcasts with a substantial audience and value to a network or platform,

To explain what I mean by that, I want to start by looking back at a specific phrase I wrote in the 2020 preview that we published at the top of the year: “The independent podcaster will likely face turbulent times ahead.” Many of the predictions we made in that column didn’t age especially well, given the coronavirus — in particular, I’m thinking about the one I made about how physical spaces such as studios or co-working facilities were going to be great extra revenue streams — but I stand by that thought about the independent podcaster. Indeed, all the consolidation and acquisition we saw over the past twelve months has yielded an especially anxious and uncertain time for many indies, especially those reliant for monetisation on a company, network, or station that have changed hands or direction over the past year.

That said, some of the responses to these turbulent times have surprised me a little. While podcasting is moving towards the uncharted waters of a new era in many ways, there is one aspect that feels like a return to the past: the fact that some medium-to-large shows have actively chosen independence again over network pick up or platform affiliation. In the immediate post-Serial years, there was something of a sense that what success looks like for an acclaimed show was to find a long-term home or backer for it. A podcast network, perhaps, or a public radio station that would take the day-to-day work of monetisation and mitigating risk off the creator’s plate in exchange for a cut of revenue and/or intellectual property.

Nowadays, it feels to me like that aspiration is nowhere near as linear. Plenty of shows still seek and benefit from a corporate partner, which is fine and great. It just no longer feels like that’s the only endgame on the cards. That’s because it’s become increasingly clear that such partnerships come with big downsides as they do with big benefits. There is greater transparency around the trade-offs now — which is a good thing, in my opinion. Let’s not be romanticising any of the outcomes here.

For all the help with ad sales, a network partner can also suddenly just pivot away from content, as Panoply (nowadays known as Spotify’s Megaphone) did. Or they might suddenly downsize their podcast slate, as KCRW did this summer (leaving shows like Here Be Monsters to walk the world solo once again). The flare up earlier this year over intellectual property ownership feeds into this too. It feels as if there’s a much greater recognition now about the costs as well as the benefits of getting involved with a big publisher.

Back in the 2014-2015 stretch, there was a small flurry of collectives and indie networks appearing that brought independent shows together around a common purpose and shared resources: The Heard, APM’s Infinite Guest, Radiotopia, and so on. Some of those have ceased to exist since then, while others have taken a reputational hit this year, but more recently, other examples have sprouted up and begun to flourish: Multitude in NYC, Hub & Spoke in Boston, The Big Light in Glasgow. All of these entities are bets on collaborative independence, and the bet seems to be working out so far.

There were a few other data points from the past year that got me thinking about this. There’s Helen Zaltzman’s departure from Radiotopia in favour of a new Patreon-based model, rather than seeking a post-PRX partnership with another podcast publisher. There’s Jeff Entman’s aforementioned return to a community radio-esque model after his arrangement with KCRW dissolved. There’s the fact that this year Rose Eveleth has expanded her own critically acclaimed indie pod, Flash Forward, into a network with the addition of two new shows on related topics. And then there’s Hollywood Handbook, the long-running Earwolf show that’s similarly choosing Patreon-based independence built off the strength of their substantial archive, seemingly in the wake of SiriusXM acquiring Stitcher.

At a time when there’s more money than ever washing around in podcasting, an outside observer might assume that chasing the money is the only game in town. But as it’s always been the case, and as it’s increasingly internalized, that money comes with strings attached. It could be in the form of download targets, or creative restrictions, or simply limits to the true upside. There’s money and interest going into developing better tech solutions for monetising independents as well, whether that’s via Acast’s recent partnership with Patreon or Substack’s podcast hosting beta.

Going — or staying — independent isn’t an easy choice, and it may well be that in the future some or all of the examples that I’ve mentioned end up moving in-house somewhere, taking investment, or in some other way altering their models. I’m going to be taking a sabbatical from writing in Hot Pod from the start of 2021 while I work on other writing projects, and I’m very interested to see how this all appears to me once I’m no longer scrutinising every development so closely every week. But for now, at the end of 2020, I’m looking back at this year and what stands out to me are the times that I saw creators who could have chosen a path that would have taken them inside the companies now central to podcasting, but didn’t.