the industry

The Podcast World’s Year From Hell

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Getty Images

You must be familiar by now: It’s been a crummy year for the podcast world. Certainly the roughest since I started writing about the space almost a decade ago between the layoffs, the show cancellations, and the general feeling of armageddon hovering over the community.

No one can tell the story of what happened better than those who went through it, though. So as part of the annual Vulture Podcast Survey, in which we poll people around the podcast world on the shows they felt were the best of the year (the results of which will be out soon!), we also gave respondents the optional opportunity to talk about the year and what’s ahead. In this iteration, they were asked:

1. It’s been an exceptionally difficult year for the podcast world. How would you describe what happened?

2. What do you anticipate, or hope, next year is going to bring?

Quite a few respondents took the prompts as a chance to vent and meditate on what they’ve experienced over the past 12 months — and the past ten years.

The responses consolidated around a few narratives that reflect different aspects of the same story (sometimes in direct contradiction with each other). Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive accounting of every response that came in; all in, that would’ve produced a document over 40,000 words long. Rather, I’ve pulled snippets from across a range of responses, emphasizing repeated ideas and juxtaposing sentiments in ways that are sometimes contiguous, sometimes conflicting. Some respondents agreed to be named. Others stuck to anonymity. Taken together, I think they represent a decent snapshot of this moment in time from the ground up.

How would you describe what happened in podcasting this year?

An executive: “I think 2023 for podcasting was what 2000 was for the dot-com business. A vicious and destructive but very necessary correction that helped one of the defining businesses of the last 20 years get on the right track. The tide of Hollywood people, VCs, tech companies, and drunken platforms is finally receding. What’s left is a very strong business that will start to grow again.”

Martin Austwick, independent musician and audiomaker: “Just a load of terrible bullshit. Terrible idiots with no sense about audio or the business of audio finally deciding to turn off the money taps for whatever reason. Lots of people lost their jobs, freelancers struggling to find work. The terrible idiots are probably doing fine. Now lots of people think that because those terrible idiots with blank checks can’t make money, audio is fucked. It kinda is, but mainly because of the idiots and that resulting crisis of confidence, not because people aren’t listening to audio.”

A public media executive: “There were two major factors: a large market correction because of minimum guarantees and acquisitions that created conditions that were not sustainable financially or in terms of audience. These behaviors are largely at the heels of for-profit companies being extractive of the medium. The second factor is that we have gone through a faux-recession, but media buyers and the media budgets behaved as if there was an actual recession.”

An independent podcaster: “The ongoing collapse of ad sales has demonstrated what a bad idea it was for so many podcasts to adopt web media’s reliance on digital ad sales. Scale it back and sell subscriptions, and you might be surprised how possible it is for a small team to make a living podcasting! Also podcast ads are terrible and no one likes them.”

Bikram Chatterji, CEO and worker-owner at Maximum Fun: “My model of what happened this year is, in a weird way, something from the 2008 financial crisis. Do you remember the CEO of Citibank saying, ‘As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance’? I think broadly the industry knew, throughout 2022, that the spending was out of control and that the shows weren’t hitting their projections. And so when the ad market wobbled and then collapsed, everyone was primed to panic — they knew that the music had stopped. My concern is that when folks are panicking they make bad choices — laying off talented people and canceling truly wonderful shows, for sure. But also embracing bad programmatic ads and pushing the virtuous cycle of ‘Selectively chosen good podcast ads → Good engagement → Good CPMs → Ability to be selective in podcast ads’ in the opposite direction.”

An independent publisher: “It was a market-correction year. It would be too simplistic to lay all the fault with Spotify — a lot of other executives had to make their own choices on how to (over)spend money over the years — but it’s undeniable that they had a distending effect on the parameters of the industry, and the fact that I’ve had to text friends at Spotify THREE times this year to check on them after layoffs is a good reminder that they never had and still don’t have any master plan on how podcasts will really fit into their business. So now everyone else is left to pick up the pieces.”

Christine Laskowski, creator and host of T&J: Lukas Matsson is real, y’all.”

An executive: “Yes, many people made too much content for too few listeners in the Great Podcast Boom. But that’s not the whole story: I believe during the pandemic and after, ad clients discovered that Americans were going to shop anyway, every day, all year round, and they decided that they didn’t need to spend as much on marketing and advertising. I’m confident that when advertisers rediscover the power and loyalty of consumers who listen deeply, we’ll see the rut end — and swiftly.”

John Asante, an independent showrunner and producer: “It feels like a lot of folks at the top of these big companies don’t really have a sense of what podcast listeners really want to hear. (Don’t you think it would help if they, you know, listened to the people who make them? Maybe put out more listener surveys?) A lot of big podcast players who invested tons of money in celebrities and influencers didn’t seem to get the ROI or downloads they predicted.”

Jason Stewart, co-host of How Long Gone: “2023 was likely a challenging year for the podcast world because it was for every other form of media, too. Film, TV, music, radio, and even fine art have all enjoyed decades of endless budgets and success, and now that anyone can succeed without the system, the system has lost much of its power. Podcasting was unique because it never had a plan. Now that it does, people realize, yet again, that the type of people who typically build these systems are lame and probably getting paid way too much money, so they all get laid off. Just like every other form of media, the only people left with a job are the talent, the ad sellers, and the media who report on them being fired.”

An editor: “I have no clue what happened this year. I just want chicken Alfredo and health care, honey.”

A host: “My based-on-vibes assessment is that any idiot can run a successful media company during boom years and it takes actual skill to navigate the down years. And a lot of people who were running podcast companies aren’t business geniuses nor do they have a particularly innovative vision — they just jumped on a trend early enough to make a lot of money fast. And now we know which emperors have no clothes.”

An independent podcaster: “I keep seeing podcasts with three, four, even five producers, and I just don’t understand how that financially makes sense.”

An agent: “This is a matter of bad management more than issues with business fundamentals. People who actually understand what a podcast costs to produce and the mechanics of building/scaling teams saw this one coming from miles away. If those experts had been allowed to be more proximate to money-making decisions, you wouldn’t have this all out panic as companies work to ‘de-risk.’”

An independent producer: “I think a bunch of really confident talkers with no authentic vision or originality (a.k.a. non-audio business people/executives) were given the keys to the castle, ignored all the original caretakers of the castle, and then were the only people surprised when the castle’s plumbing stopped working and the whole place started to smell like shit.”

Julie Carli, an audio journalist: “I’ve called 2023 ‘The Year of the Butthole’ because it’s all shit. Boom-time money dried up and distributors got scared. That’s resulted in brutal, successive lay-offs and a preference for always-on shows.”

A producer: “For the audio creators who are ‘lucky’ enough to still have a job, all this means producing creatively unfulfilling shows and being a hostage to your employer as there are no real alternative job prospects. On top of this, inexperienced executives — both in the craft of audio and general management — are enforcing ever more draconian production schedules and management practices that can lead to journalistically dubious choices and burnout.”

John Shields, director of podcasts at The Economist: “I’m less gloomy than most. While it has been brutal for those affected by job losses, I think we’ve mostly seen an inevitable correction after the unsustainable exuberance of previous years. A lot of this was fueled by factors outside our still (relatively) small industry like zero-rate interest and COVID stimulus. I think the secular trends are all still very encouraging and, as with previous market corrections, the industry will ultimately come out bigger and stronger.”

Ian Wheeler, publisher at Talkhouse: “We’ve had an absolutely amazing year. The industry is coming down from a really overheated period of spending (on the platform/large-studio side) where some guys in suits thought it was smart to give every TikTok influencer a massive minimum guarantee to make a podcast. This has really screwed things up for said studios, but also all of the many wonderful people who work (or worked) at those places. Those places aren’t buying shows anywhere near the clip they were. The independent community, however — especially those that don’t rely solely on major entities for ad sales or to buy their shows — feels like it’s in a pretty decent spot. Many of us are also affected by the buyers’ nervousness, for sure. But being independent, pretty well diversified, and low overhead seems like the best position to be in at the moment.”

Jody Avirgan, owner of Roulette Productions: “A lot of foolish ideas about what kind of money and scale were possible got proven wrong. That’s obvious. But one of the real corrosive results is that a narrative set in about podcasting: That it had gone bust. When, in fact, what this year really showed was that podcasting was always built — and still is — for modest, sustainable growth. Which is fine! Preferable, even. I hope the folks who are in charge of telling this industry’s story (namely sales folks, investors, and people with some version of SVP next to their name) can frame that new narrative. We’re counting on you.”

What do you anticipate, or hope, next year is going to bring?

An independent publisher: “I do think 2024 will be a bounce-back/rebuilding year. Indications I’ve heard on advertising spend, both in general in media and specifically on podcasts, is that things are gearing back up.”

A host: “This year is going to be difficult. I don’t think the lay-offs or show cancellations are over. And I find the idea that with the ‘dumb money’ gone we’ll see fewer celebrity shows or true-crime shows to be wishful thinking. If podcasting ever has a golden age, I hope it hasn’t happened yet.”

An executive: “We’re going to see ad dollars start to recover as we finally do hit bottom, remember the value proposition here (that $18 billion of terrestrial radio advertising), and start climbing back up. What I hope for next year is that we see new breakout shows. The most troubling trend right now is shows before 2019 only getting bigger, and shows launched this year getting smaller.”

Jo Piazza, host of Under the Influence and the upcoming Sicilian Inheritance: “I think the next year will continue to be a real struggle for hosts and producers who want to create quality shows. We are seeing a massive constriction in how many quality shows are being financed and produced with larger media companies, and it is truly eroding the caliber of the shows being released.”

A producer: “More top podcasts of the year will be sponsored content. More people will go the Patreon route. That money will become as scarce as the ad money is now. People will try to get into film. The film world is also struggling. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. I personally am hoping to go the rich-spouse route.”

A narrative producer: “Hahah we are all fucked. Hard to imagine anyone having a good year. Frankly, I don’t think we can make certain types of work without institutional funding and until those institutions reinvest or get their shit together, we are not going to have a lot of the excellent audio journalism we have come to know and love over the last decade.”

Avery Trufelman, creator of Articles of Interest: “I think — I hope — more people will try to go indie. It’s not the easiest way, but it’s so worth it.”

Maya Lin Sugarman, host and executive producer of Magnificent Jerk: “As terrible as this year has been, I also get this sense that it’s awakening new ways of thinking in podcast creators when it comes to their relationship to funding. As the doors have started to close on companies investing in podcasting … there’s also this sense of an indie uprising? At least, that’s what I hope next year could bring. There are so many creators with amazing ideas, and I think many have lost patience waiting for permission to make the things they want to make.”

An independent podcaster: “I wouldn’t recommend anyone start a podcast unless they’re doing at least part of the producing and editing themselves — it’s not ideal, but it’s the best way to make it all work and keep your show sustainable.”

John Asante, an independent showrunner and producer: “I feel like more production companies and networks are going to rely on freelancers and contractors to make their shows. They don’t need to pay them benefits like they would full-time employees and can pay them varying rates based on their income. My sense of this is that this could be a continuing trend, at least until more production companies and networks either get more funding or new players come in to fill the gaps in the industry.”

An independent producer: “I’m hopeful that we’re going to see a collectively owned podcast company launch in 2024. I’ve heard some rumblings about it from different people, and I think that after the chaotic boom and bust we’ve experienced over the last decade, people are exploring new ways of building a sustainable business. I am very invested in an anti-corporate version of the podcast future.”

An executive producer: “A friend mentioned that the end of our industry’s boom period would lead to more play. We can weather this storm through a foundation of community reliance, similar to the independent art economy. I hope that more studios will structure themselves less like app startups, and more like independent record labels and co-ops.”

Benjamin Riskin, producer and founder of Room Tone: “Sorry, this is a bit like when Time magazine declared ‘Me’ the Person of the Year, but I think it’ll be a big year for people who can make the things they are pitching. Reporters and producers that cut tape, engineers, writers, etc. These are people that have the most flexibility to get a project off the ground, the best chance at connecting with listeners authentically, and the most to gain from doing so.”

Alison MacAdam, freelance story editor: “I’m hopeful that narrative audio journalism can establish itself in the world of podcasting as a different animal from chatcasts, interview shows, and true crime. It’s not like — to use a TV analogy — The View and Chernobyl and PBS documentaries all get held to the same standards or face the same revenue expectations. The podcast industry as whole needs to carve new, more specific channels for different kinds of podcasts, channels that honor each type of show’s unique value.”

Eric Silver, head of creative and co-founder at Multitude: “Although it made me want to pull my hair out hearing media executives who scoffed at ‘chit-chat shows’ now declaring that making those shows is their Big Pivot, I am happy podcasting will stabilize itself around something I’ve loved and thrived with for the better part of a decade.”

A host: “I think as the podcast platforms become more extractive and unpredictable (hi, Spotify!), YouTube becomes more alluring. And there’s so much audience there. But it also costs something real in terms of the ability to manipulate and create great audio and experiences. I couldn’t do what I am now doing there at a quality level I’d find acceptable. But does that mean I’m leaving a ton of audience on the table? It’s a hard question, I think.”

An executive producer: “If there is any upside at all, I might hope that there would be a winnowing and pruning of the universe of shows. Right now, it’s just so crowded. I love the democracy of the medium, and I love people making things — but the podcast charts look like true-crime franchises in a 50-car pile up with the celebrity book section.”

Erin Ryan, host of Hysteria: “I’d like to see a continued backlash against ‘true crime’ podcasts that are nakedly exploitative of the death and suffering of strangers. I’m going to copyright my death in advance so that in case I’m ever murdered horribly, nobody is allowed to sell BetterHelp ads against a description of how my blood was splattered across my nightstand.”

An independent creator: “I hope that we’ll start to see some normalizing of spending after the rollercoaster of the last few years, where money poured in and then dried up. In the eight years I’ve been making fiction, I’ve seen trends come and go, and I think it’s finally time we really establish what a sustainable audio-fiction industry looks like.”

Helen Zaltzman, creator of The Allusionist: “To me, it feels like a return to the vibes of podcasting in 2013 — the audience was growing and some shows were really successful, but because there wasn’t all the corporate money yet, there wasn’t much point to making a podcast except for making a podcast.”

An executive: “I hope we can stop telling the same stories over and over again about the industry. The story that Serial started it all (was never true) and that Spotify overpaid for Gimlet (sure, maybe, but where they really threw money into a fire pit was elsewhere — hello, every single celebrity deal they did, not just the big ones we know about like Megan and Harry and the Obamas, because there are countless others). I also hope we can break the cycle of telling the same stories over and over again in our podcasts. Now that the bright lights of capital are dimmed, let’s inject some new ideas into the system.”

Erica Heilman, creator of Rumble Strip: “I have conflicted feelings about the podcasting ‘industry.’ The rapid influx of money yielded some awesome new podcasts, but it also buried podcasting’s origin story. In the beginning, podcasters were making shit just because we could. Suddenly, digital technology had made it possible to make and share our own work without the approval of a station or programming manager. Since no one had much to gain or lose, the emphasis was on play, and the only reason to do it was for love. There were a lot of terrible podcasts, but at least they were all surprising. So after the awful collapse of this industry, I hope people decide to just make stuff anyway. People hate it when I say that. They say, ‘Well, I need to make a living.’ And I mean, of course. I don’t have any smart answers for that, or useful ones. At the moment, this ‘industry’ is imploding. There aren’t a lot of jobs, and we need to figure out how to proceed together. But in the meantime, I hope you just make stuff anyway. Because there’s nobody on the planet who can make a podcast exactly like you would.”

The Podcast World’s Year From Hell