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The podosphere is experiencing some rather weird weather as of late. No, not just from the punctuated-panic nature of the pandemic that never seems to end. Nor is it just the massive wave of consolidation sweeping through podcasting’s upper echelons. Those are parts, sure. But it’s more than that.
I think podcasting has entered a chaotic era.
Change—near-constant change—is nothing new to podcasting. But not all change means upheaval. The fabric that underpins all of podcasting is quite flexible and resilient, allowing the podcasting community to live in a relatively stable period for the last two decades.
Yes, we’ve had significant inflection points that have changed the course of podcasting. But those prior inflection points have all been similar and have been brought about by large companies entering and advancing the podcasting ecosystem. Often that large company was Apple. But we’ve also seen waves caused by large publishing companies. And even a music streaming giant.
With few exceptions, the tectonic shifts that followed have tended to better podcasting overall.
At least, for most of podcasting.
Without a doubt, those inflection points left localized disruption and destruction in their wake. iTunes 4.9 single-handedly decimated—if not outright destroyed—our nascent podcast listening app and directory marketplace. Today, fortunes are won and lost when popular shows are swallowed up by large entities that either lock the once-free content behind paywalls or force listeners down an exclusive path. So it’s not all roses.
But for the most part, each of those big moves either directly benefited podcasting as a whole or at least had silver linings that grew larger than the dark cloud.
That Was Then. This Is Now. And Now Is Weird.
But all of that has changed in recent months. In this new era, the dominant forces in podcasting—yes, I mean Apple and Spotify—seem to be moving away from podcasting, if not being actively hostile toward it. Not just podcasting as we know it today. But the entire ethos of podcasting.
It's been four months since Apple broke the fundamental on-ramp to the entire podcasting ecosystem. More recently, they’ve exposed the hidden underbelly of podcast ad measurement and negatively impacted podcasters’ income from impression-based ad campaigns. Rather than fixing the problem or even offering up an apology, they’re staying mostly silent. It seems Apple is running on little more than momentum at the moment, with several prominent high-level persons exiting the company.
Spotify vis-à-vis Anchor is laying bare its plans to completely disintermediate every part of podcasting that they Spotify do not own. That's as chilling as it is not surprising.
Social audio or drop-in audio platforms that started with Clubhouse and are now spreading at Plurk-like infection rates to become Greenhouse or a Firehouse or whatever the next house, room, or side will be named are seducing podcasters away from timeless, on-demand content with an easy way to create more ephemeral and much lower-quality audio content.
I don’t begrudge anyone or any company their ability to make shifts, even drastic ones. And I fully understand the never-constant nature of things and do not pine for the past. Heck, I don’t even want companies to leave well enough alone, because podcasting must continue to evolve, else it stagnates and becomes irrelevant.
But we’re still in a very weird time. A chaotic era, even.
All This Chaos Is Clouding Up My Magic 8-Ball
This show is ostensibly about the future of podcasting and helping working podcasters ask questions to get them through the future. And I’ll admit: I’m a bit flummoxed at the moment.
Predicting the future with any sort of accuracy is always hard. But identifying the directionality of podcasting and extrapolating possible outcomes is fairly straightforward, given enough inputs and correlation capabilities.
Unless you’re living in a chaotic era. Like we are right now.
So anyone talking about the future of podcasting without acknowledging that we’re in uncharted waters is guessing more than they normally do. History can only get us so far when things are this weird. And I assure you, things are very weird right now.
The question is really what can you, the working podcaster, can do about it. How can you ride out this chaotic era until we reach stability—or some semblance of stability—on the other side. For as long as the chaos lasts.
I suggest you approach the chaos we’re all in with these three guiding principles:
1. Realize there’s no one coming to save us.
Cake had it right. The time of big organizations advancing all of podcasting is either behind us or on pause. They’re clearly tending to their own interests, looking inward and pulling the best parts of podcasting out of podcasting and into their own closed orbits and ecosystems.
Whether you identify as an indie podcaster or not, you’re on your own. Like the rest of us. We can’t wait around for another big organization to come and lift us out of the chaos. There’s just not enough upside for them right now.
2. Diversify your podcast’s assets and footprint
Leaning into the reality of that first principle means you probably shouldn’t put your eggs in a single basket. Unless, of course, the owner of that basket wants to compensate you extremely well for your eggs. As you know, I think there's no such thing as selling out; only the prospect of selling too cheaply. So if the giant bags of money are gigantic enough, then cash out and live the good life!
But if you’re not getting a seriously fat paycheck, then don’t pay fealty to the big podcasting players that are responsible for the chaos we find ourselves in today. By all means, try out new things that seem like they may have some tangential benefit to your podcast. But don’t get sucked in by the glitz and glamor of a fast-burning fad.
Take a hard look at the apps and services you either promote or endorse through your default behaviors, like sharing links to your episodes and growing your audience. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of boycotts, as slopes tend to be slippery. But I see no value—to you or to podcasting—in continuing to promote the usage of apps and services that are contributing to the problem. Especially when there are other apps and services that accomplish the same goal who aren’t trying to end podcasting as we know it.
3. Hold on for dear life!
The chaotic era will end. And luckily, with over 4 million podcasts available, podcasting has enough “genetic diversity” to survive a near-extinction-level event. So whatever happens, even if the majority of shows get wiped out, absorbed into a megacorp, or fade away to pursue other creative outlets; podcasting will survive. And probably be the richer for it.
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It’s up to us to keep podcasting going. Continuing to make episodes. Continuing to launch new shows. Continuing to push the boundaries of what podcasting can be. It’s up to us.
As is continuing to show your support for those who are working hard to make podcasting better as a whole. If you get value out of the content I provide to you, you can show me your support by buying me a coffee. But don’t stop with me. Support all the people in podcasting who are doing their part to make podcasting better.
Diversify, then hold on. We’ll make it through to the other side of this chaotic era in podcasting. Whatever it looks like.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.