the industry

Podcasting Is Getting Its Own Oscars. Will It Work?

Photo: Courtesy of Wondery

Last Friday, a group of podcast publishers and related operatives announced the formation of something called the Podcast Academy, which they described as a nonprofit organization dedicated to “elevating awareness and excitement for podcasts as a major media category and advancing knowledge and relationships in and around the business.”

Its various activities will involve things like holding educational webinars, organizing networking events, and publishing white papers. But its flagship endeavor seems to be an awards program to be called the Golden Mics — or, as people are already calling it, the Oscars of podcasting.

The newly formed body (not to be mistaken for what appears to be a semi-amateur Australian resource of the same name for podcasters) will be driven by membership and intends to count industry professionals and independent podcasters, however defined, as its core constituencies. Its founding members include executives from Wondery, Stitcher, NPR, PRX, Tenderfoot TV, Spotify, and Sony Music, along with Criminal’s Lauren Spohrer, Spoke Media’s Alia Tavakolian, UTA’s Oren Rosenbaum, and Rekha Murthy, a former PRX exec turned independent operator.

But as a write-up in Variety highlights, one noteworthy thing about this story is that some major podcast publishers haven’t declared allegiance to the Podcast Academy, at least just yet. That list includes iHeartMedia (which, by the way, operates its own competing podcast award), the New York Times, Entercom (which owns Cadence13 and Pineapple Street), Westwood One, and Luminary. The academy will start accepting applications for membership later in the spring.

So far, the response to the announcement has been broadly accommodating, but there are pockets of skepticism. Much of that skepticism is, understandably, rooted in a familiar anxiety: that the academy, along with its awards system, may end up operating in a way that creates structural advantages for its membership (in particular, the companies of people who make up its governing body) to the zero-sum detriment of everyone who exists outside its membership.

In a fascinating parallel to broader platform-monopoly worries, these concerns about the academy appear to be an expression of a more elemental fear: that power in podcasting, a format historically valued for its decentralized nature by which any creator could ostensibly build a following and a business without having to negotiate with gatekeepers, would be consolidated in the hands of a relative few by virtue of this academy. In other words, there exists some theoretical concern that the Podcast Academy represents the formation of a true gatekeeper.

Of course, one could argue that Apple, with its informal status as the ecosystem’s impartial steward, has long been podcasting’s historical gatekeeper. But that perspective is now being challenged, as recent competitive moves by Spotify suggest a shift away from this status quo. In any case, Apple hasn’t exactly operated as a true gatekeeper, acting instead as a kind of distant god: life giving but ultimately passive in the overt shaping of things.

All of these changes together represent another episode in an ongoing tension that has come to define podcasting’s recent history: On one hand, you have an ecosystem that, on average, would like to accelerate the growth of its stature, fortunes, and reputation in the broader culture. But on the other, you have an ecosystem that, in some corners, is worried about a consolidation of power to achieve those ends, whether through the spendy machinations of Spotify … or the formation of a formal trade body like the Podcast Academy.

At this point, the body’s stated goal of “elevating awareness and excitement for podcasts” is by itself already quite a tall task. Beyond brand marketing, we’re essentially talking about the academy being in the business of manufacturing cultural currency, relevance, and prestige. A sense of “cool,” even. Now, I’m no reliable source in matters of cool — my preferred vehicle is a nondescript minivan, for practical reasons — but even I know the prospect of cultivating such a thing is laughably hard and complicated.

The newly formed Podcast Academy must also contend with an even bigger challenge: It has to effectively develop some sense of legitimacy as a body that speaks for so-called industry professionals as well as independent podcasters. Who “legitimately” gets to represent podcasting isn’t always clear. See iHeartMedia’s own attempt at a podcast award, for example, now in its second year; it has raised eyebrows not only because it’s an awards system in which the facilitator is also a competitor — thus evoking questions about the robustness, integrity, and trustworthiness of its process — but also because we’re talking about a company that has yet to establish a strong association with the core identity of podcasting in the broader culture.

The best route for the Podcast Academy would likely be to establish legitimacy by assembling a meaningful coalition, one that adequately unites enough kingdoms between “industry professionals” and “independent podcasters” under a shared system of recognition.

There is, of course, a way to approach this task cynically: Give up on trying to fully represent the podcast universe as a whole and instead build the buzziest possible coalition, cultivating an environment in which holdouts will decide that there are more benefits to participating than to standing outside in the cold. History is written by the victors, after all.

But the involvement of founding member PRX, in particular, which has historically advocated to preserve the open nature of podcasting, suggests that such a bottom-line strategy isn’t in the cards. However, the initiative will still have to contend with the complicated issue of representation for independent podcasters, itself rooted in a structural conundrum: How can a discrete few speak for the theoretically infinite?

That is a question the Podcast Academy will likely have to grapple with if it wants to go anywhere at all. Whether through continuous, consistent, meaningful community support — the webinars, networking events, white papers, and so on — or through a system of awards and recognition that actually feels fair to all parties, the academy must make the case that it matters to podcasting before it can make the case that podcasting matters to everyone else.

Podcasting Is Getting Its Own Oscars. Will It Work?