Podcasting's Hollowed-Out Middle Class
For as democratic as the medium is, podcasting isn’t immune to a widening gap between the have and the have-nots. But is the hollowing-out a natural or unnatural phenomenon? And what are podcasters to do about it?
Podcasting has some really good benchmarking statistics, thanks to the work of Rob Walsh, Vice President of Podcaster Relations at Libsyn (Liberated Syndication), largest podcast hosting company based on the total number of shows on the platform. Every month, Rob breaks down Libsyn's aggregate numbers and gives us what the download averages for the prior 45 days or so. Then he groups the data into tiers, providing download thresholds necessary to reach the top 20%, 10% 5%, 2%, and then finally, the top 1% of podcasts hosted on Libsyn. If you listen to The Feed, you’ll hear these numbers each month just like I do.
I used to report these numbers to my clients, telling them what tier their shows fell into over the same period provided by Rob. But I've stopped reporting on that number because it assumes my clients are trying to reach those upper tiers. And while many of them would be thrilled with sharing the same level as the top shows out there, it’s not likely to happen for shows that are designed for niche audiences. Riches are in the niches, you’ll recall.
What we (or at least I) really need to see is a distribution chart that shows clusters of podcasts by audience size. You’ve seen distribution charts when you look at ratings and reviews for products on Amazon (and lots of other places). When you see an average rating of 4.29 stars, often you can click through to see the number of reviews received at each level that make up that average in a nice little graph. That’s a distribution graph.
And what you’ll notice when you look at those graphs is that the middle is almost always empty.
That's because people who rate and review things tend to rate things they either love or hate. But if they neither love nor hate it, many people just won’t make the effort to say “it was OK”. So it's pretty natural to see a hollowed-out middle when it comes to ratings and reviews.
We don't have that distribution chart in podcasting. Or if we do, I haven't seen it. Yet this is something that the podcast hosting companies could make for us. It’s something that third-party tracking services like Chartable could make for us. They're not, but I really wish they would.
So without an actual chart, I’m going to speculate that podcasting’s distribution chart would also look very hollowed-out. To be clear, I'm not talking about ratings and reviews. I'm talking hollowed-out by the number of listeners across the spectrum.
My assumption is that if we grouped shows by the number of listeners/downloads, we would see a really big cluster of shows at the bottom of the distribution chart. Just using Libsyn’s numbers, we pretty confident that half of the 900,000 podcasts out there see less than 150 downloads per episode.
The further along the x-axis we travel, the size of the clusters of shows would drop off precipitously. How precipitously? We don’t know, because the data hasn’t been presented to us in this way. (Yet?)
But as we continue to travel that x-axis toward the other extreme -- audiences that are very, very large -- I’d wager we'd once again see an upswing. No, not nearly as large as the cluster on the bottom. But I’m betting that we’d see (or perhaps we’ll start to see) a new cluster of shows growing at the high end of the scale.
And a big gap in the middle. Hence the hollowing out of the middle of podcasting.
Honestly, I think that's an okay thing to happen. I don't think there's anything really for us to do about it. But there are some factors at play that tend to push podcasts to either to the upper- or lower-end. And those factors will continue to play a more important role, increasing the missing middle.
Factors that push the big-audience podcast cluster
1. Big podcast creation companies are getting more money.
Their business model is working. Whether driven by ad revenue or outside entities willing to invest big sums of money to make amazing content, the big podcast creation firms are ramping up to increase their output. As they grow their teams they can make more great shows. And they can leverage their own growing network of large, high-quality shows to quickly move their brand new show from no listeners to hundreds of thousands of listeners, spending virtually no time at all in the middle.
2. Podcast listening apps and directories get better at presenting better content.
Apple Podcasts has a big redesign coming. Spotify is rolling out a brand new redesign at the time of this publishing. This, in turn, is pushing the smaller, independent apps to also grow and get better. Part of all of that likely means making it easier for new listeners to discover outstanding content. That often means that the shows in the big cluster on one side will continue to get more preference and exposure in-app, growing their numbers.
3. Non-podcasting big media will continue to get excited about podcasting.
Big media covers the trends, and as podcasting grows, we’ll continue to see more mainstream media coverage. What kind of shows will they cover? The big ones that already have the attention (and the quality).
Factors that push the small-audience podcast cluster
On the bulging lower end, there are similar but different factors at play that will also continue to exert their own forces.
1. More people listening to podcasts means more people dabbling in podcasting.
This happened to blogging, social media, online video, and yes, even podcasting. And that will continue. Everyone who starts podcasting starts with an audience of zero. And even if they do grow, more will come along tomorrow to take their place with tiny, tiny audiences, feeding this cluster on a continual basis.
2. More services will make easier to podcast.
I can promise you that it’s gotten a lot easier to podcast over the last 16 years. Anchor was a huge factor in increasing the number of tiny (or no) audience shows because they made it dead-simple to start a podcast. I predict we’ll see even more of these low-end service providers crop up again, making it even easier to get a podcast launched. (Not easier to make a really good show, you understand.)
3. Smaller shows are often happy staying small.
Many who make smaller-audience shows are doing this for the fun or just a creative endeavor. While most hobbyists wouldn’t mind a little fame (or fortune), they’re not banking on it. That’s not why they podcast. They're often very okay having their shows exist within the micro-networks in which they find themselves. Those networks are just fine at making sure the people who are into the kinds of things found in those micro-networks are well-fed. Those shows service the audience that they need to service, so it’s working for them.
Those six factors will continue to drive the hollowing-out of podcasting’s middle-class. And I don't think it's a bad thing.
What do the podcasters you hang out with think about that statement? Are you sharing your numbers with one another? You should, and then you can make your own distribution curve to share with others. Tell your podcasting compatriots to listen to this episode of Podcast Pontifications and see if you can get them interested in contributing your own distribution graph. Maybe you’ll inspire others. Heck, I’ll even play along if you ask!
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.