Here’s a quote I’ve been mulling over: “Even podcasting’s most ardent evangelizers would have to acknowledge that many podcasts are oriented around a very basic premise: ‘Here are some people talking.’” So went a recent New York Times Magazine piece on the rise of the athlete-podcaster, pegged to the recent brouhaha around The Draymond Green Show. (Perhaps predictably, the essay came down on the opposite end of the matter as myself.)
It is, of course, far from the first time I’ve heard the sentiment over the years, typically delivered as a statement of deficiency. I suppose it’s literally true, though no more true than the notion that many books are simply a collection of words strung into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, or that many burgers are just slabs of meat between buns. Which is to say, sure! But also, sure.
Anyway, lots and lots of people continued to talk into mics over the past six months. Each passing week sees the release of ever more new podcasts, not to mention new episodes from existing shows, once again contributing to a growing sense of unease around the core math problem at the center of it all: Is the growth of talking being matched by the growth in listening?
Where the Industry Stands Now
Spotify still thinks so, as one would expect. Now three years into its post-music gambit, the Swedish platform remains at the center of the conversation around this question, between its efforts to YouTubeify the economics of podcasting and the broader corporate arms race those machinations have sparked. It’s also quite literally been the conversation about podcasts: After all, the year kicked off with a quick succession of news cycles generated by high-profile Spotify-bankrolled talkers. January saw the latest (and largest, by far) round of Joe Rogan controversy, which resulted in some tumult within Spotify and seemingly only strengthened Rogan’s hand. Shortly after, Call Her Daddy experienced its most pronounced public moment yet, when Alex Cooper staggered a somewhat controversial two-parter with Jamie Lynn Spears in the wake of Britney Spears’s release from conservatorship.
At the time, I argued that Joe Rogan is Spotify’s future, like it or not, and by that I meant both specifically and generally. Materially, Rogan’s show serves as a foundational pillar around which the rest of Spotify’s podcast business will be built. But the cost effectiveness of its format further makes clear that high-profile talk shows — Rogan, Cooper, Bill Simmons, etc., etc. — will always be essential to Spotify’s fortunes, no matter how other things shake out in the future.
Presently, the company is trying to make a good show of indicating that it’s able to produce in-house hits, perhaps as a way to signal that it isn’t mortally dependent on the game of talent contracts, especially now with eager deep-pocketed bidders like SiriusXM and Amazon Music waiting in the wings. Batman Unburied, the fiction podcast series that comes from a partnership between Spotify and Warner Bros., is at the center of this performance. Spotify says Batman Unburied is a hit (a second season has been green-lit), but it’s one of those things where you’re going to have to take it at its word. Such is hit-vetting in the age of tech media platforms and their black boxes. Given the absence of third-party analysis (Parrot Analytics, the audio world awaits you), the best one can do is keep an eye out for second-order effects: For instance, as a mere mortal, I can trust that Stranger Things remains a titanic hit for Netflix in part due to seeing what it’s done for Kate Bush.
Spotify may well figure out the other parts of businesses, whether in the form of neo-YouTube or in-house hits or success in audiobooks, but as it stands on the non-music side of things, the high-profile talkies remain supreme. Why this matters even more moving forward is rooted in the fact that the clock feels like it’s now ticking for the company. Wall Street is a beast that needs to keep feeding on fresh optimism, and it’s hard to drum up complete optimism once you’ve kept an eye on what everyone else is doing: Audible signing the Obamas (who had left Spotify), among others; Amazon Music striking notable deals with SmartLess, Exactly Right, and Pineapple Street, among others; Apple TV+ investing in limited-run series nonfiction podcasts; iHeartMedia’s mountain of smaller deals, backed by its broadcast-radio business; SiriusXM’s control of Stitcher. All this, plus the continuing development of infrastructure for any podcaster or publisher that wants to opt out of the high-stakes corporate layer. On this note, Marc Maron’s recent move to Acast, and the subsequent public reopening of the WTF archives, has been a fascinating development. The past six months have been plenty intriguing; I’m eager to see what’s in store for the back half.
But What About the Shows?
So that’s the businessy stuff. Let’s briefly talk about the creative side of things.
First of all, to reiterate what was said earlier: Way too much is happening and way too much is coming out all the time — you can probably relate. Indeed, this is maybe the first time in my eightish years writing about podcasts where I’m finding myself struggling to keep up; it’s all very overwhelming. (Then again, I’m barely able to keep up with television, the news, emails. Maybe I’m just getting older.) The way I think about coverage these days is a mix of things: stuff I personally find good and/or interesting, stuff I believe to be important, stuff that has “broken through.” I’m continuing to refine my calibration on the first two measures over time; here I’d like to acknowledge the emails from readers requesting for more stuff from outside the U.S.
But it’s the third thing that’s become something of a genuine broader conundrum. The observation made by Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw back in January, that podcasting hasn’t produced a new hit in years, continues to loom large. I have some scruples with the methodology behind the claim, but it definitely captures a gestalt that seems quite real, I think. The concept of “hits” and “breakthroughs” can be naturally squishy, but it feels even squishier here in podcast-land, now more so than ever.
This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been good stuff. Far from it. (We do keep a running list of the Best Podcasts of the Year So Far, after all.) I happen to think that The Trojan Horse Affair is Serial Productions’ best work since S-Town, though response to that show here in the United States seems to have been distinctly muted, which is curious. (The response in the U.K. has also been muted, but for more suspect reasons.) Perhaps the concerns about (spoiler) inconclusive podcast endings racking up audience fatigue were legitimate after all …
And while I have my reservations about SmartLess, I cannot deny its impact. Here’s a show, still relatively new, that has so thoroughly infected my personal networks. It used to be the case that every time a normal person finds out what I do for a living, they’d bring up This American Life, The Daily, Radiolab, Maron, Rogan; these days, it’s mostly SmartLess. But the larger point that new bona fide SmartLesses are few and far between seems to be holding. I’m going to mull over this a little more. Curious to hear what you think.
Anyway, here’s the lightning round on things that have stood out to me over the past six months: If Bateman, Arnett, and Hayes reign over my personal networks, Normal Gossip has captured the imagination of my professional networks. One of its more recent episodes, “Podcast Famous,” will go down as the piece of media that’s made me swerve in traffic, I was so horrified (and delighted). Speaking of gossip, I can’t get enough of Matt Belloni’s The Town; utter catnip. I loved the concluding episode of Dead Eyes, which will go down as the best ending to a podcast, maybe ever. Welcome to Night Vale turned ten. We here at Vulture remain committed to ratifying the existence of the “Cool Girl Podcast” sub-genre (see Heidiworld, Bennington), of which Karina Longworth is clearly patron saint (matron saint?). Jamie Loftus attends Ghost Church. Now working independently post–Bon Appétit, PJ Vogt has returned to the feeds with Crypto Island, and whatever you think of the situation, it’s probably the best vessel of storytelling about the crypto world that you can find. My therapist once called me “an extremely serious person,” so I guess it makes sense that The Economist’s suite of podcasts has slid into my permanent rotation. More recently, Welcome to Provincetown really brought back the 2015 Radiotopia vibe, a lovely thing. And keep an eye on Sai Sion: “His Saturn Return” was a fun, dazzling hour of fiction; would love to see what they can do with a series.
Meanwhile, the year so far has seen the end of a few eras. Jad Abumrad has retired from Radiolab, fully passing on the torch to Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller. (He will soon be leading a Podcast Institute at Vanderbilt University.) Reply All has disbanded, though Gimlet is leaving the door open for a possible brand revival in the future. Krista Tippett’s On Being is shifting gears, transitioning from a weekly public-radio model toward a seasonal podcast. The Ion Pack guys have shown their faces. Is Bodega Boys truly over? Huh, I guess not.
Yeah, so, like I said, overwhelming. Such is life in the age of Post-Monoculture Peak-Everything, let alone podcasting. But we’ll be here, digging through feeds, sorting through press releases, so send me your pitches and picks of people talking.
What I’m Listening to This Week …
➽ Shark Week will soon be upon us. Réunion: Shark Attacks in Paradise, from Little Everywhere and HyperObject Industries, makes for decent hors d’oeuvre. The series looks at a French island described as “ground zero for the deadliest string of shark attacks the world has ever seen.”
➽ 1.5x Speed continues to be, in part, a Formula One newsletter. On that note, I’m enjoying Choosing Sides: F1, hosted by Michael Kosta and Lily Herman, which is a fun primer for Americans on key lore about the sport. More Lonely Planet than Drive to Survive, kinda sorta.
➽ I had briefly forgotten that The Athletic is now a New York Times company. In any case, the sports media company has long published podcasts (shout-out to Game Theory), and this week, it’s swerving into the audio-doc lane with a six-part miniseries on the “rise and surprising” retirement of Andrew Luck, former QB of the Indianapolis Colts (and onetime guest star on Parks and Rec). All eps are available now.
➽ Spotify has apparently acquired a Wordle clone called Heardle. This has been Ya Heard? With Perd.
➽ For Fresh Air, I looked at a recent spate of podcasts inspired by reality television. I am also proud to have gotten a clip of Below Deck onto public radio-station airwaves everywhere.