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This Could Be a Rough Year for the Podcast Industry

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Getty

Last month, we surveyed hundreds of people in the podcast industry to figure out what they were listening to in 2022. We also asked them what they thought was to come in 2023. Dozens of insiders, creators, and executives responded to that prompt, and according to them, one thing is for sure: 2023 is going to hurt.

Recession concerns are running very high, and just as every other media and entertainment sector is bracing for turbulence, so too are podcast folk. In my exchanges, the specter of more consolidations, more layoffs, more shuttered shows, and studio closures came up frequently. The general consensus is that the exorbitant spending of the past four years, particularly by the bigger companies like Spotify and iHeartMedia, will finally be properly scrutinized — and possibly come to an end.

Said one producer, “I think there’s going to be a wider reality check about numbers and how they relate to the financing of shows. Everyone in the industry knows numbers are often fudged or based off bullshit stats, and with the global economy on precarious footing, perhaps speculative capital’s role in podcasting will force some shows to close and perhaps nudge us closer to a reckoning of what a podcast really is for and how its success is measured.”

Will that reckoning take the shape of a dramatic bubble-burst, or will it be a more gradual deflation like, as one editor put it, “a sad little week-old party balloon”? Will previously major companies leave the scene entirely? What will be the knock-on effects of a big pullback in ad spending as well as advertisers enforcing more scrutiny over their campaigns? However things shake out, the broader anxiety among people I spoke to was tethered to how the year’s shifts impact job opportunities. The bigger corporate players scaling down operations will lead to fewer full-time roles and, perhaps, fewer contracts for smaller studios. That’s simply going to mean tougher times for a good chunk of the creative class that actually powers this ecosystem.

Some insiders with more hopeful outlooks encouraged a broader view: The short term is going to be hard, yes, but if it flushes out dumb money and bad practices, then the community will be coming out on the other side better than where it started. Perhaps that will mean fewer projects nobody wants (“bloated” celebrity chatcasts and true-crime shows were frequently cited), a better approach to ads (now trepidatiously trending toward the traditional radio experience), and more open space for the new and the creative.

“Is that going to create room for more interesting, ground-up projects, or are major publishers and platforms just going to double down on the ‘safe’ bets which … could be even worse?” an executive from a midsize network wondered.

Two of the bigger topics from the previous year — subscriptions and video — were questioned as well. For the former, there’s a strong belief that momentum for paid business models, either for individual shows or entire operations, will continue rolling along, even against the poor economic outlook. That would be nice, but I’m uncertain. I spent some time over the holidays trimming off quite a few subscriptions in anticipation for a tighter financial year, and I can only imagine that will be true for many others as well. Still, the expansion of direct business models is essential for the development of more indies and the longer-term health of the medium, and even if 2023 turns out to be a down year for subs and Patreon revenue, I share that bullishness over the long term.

In terms of video, the discussion tended to have a robotic feel: The platforms are incentivized to further merge the on-demand audio ecosystem with the existing digital video ecosystem, YouTube is looming on the horizon, doesn’t the prospect of more shows reaching more people through established video platforms sound exciting to you? I mean, sure, but if I wanted to watch YouTube or TikTok, I’d watch YouTube or TikTok. That said, one independent podcaster wrote in with an interesting take on what could actually be exciting with respect to video podcasts: “My one dream/hope is that we’ll start to see a podcast-like decentralized RSS distribution model for video begin to catch on. It’s not a prediction or anything, I’ve just been thinking about how great it would be, and how it’s something that could break YouTube’s functional monopoly over video creation.” Given that the video-podcast chatter tends to be YouTube-centric, though, I get the sense that this is not what most people who excitedly talk about video podcasts are actually talking about, alas.

Another thread that leaped out during my reporting: the impact of the upcoming year’s economic shifts on the type of shows we’ll be getting. There was quite a bit of concern about the longer-term viability of the limited-run narrative series with several people arguing that the current ad-driven economics behind the format simply cannot hold. (Unless, of course, you’re already well established and/or are part of a larger, diversified business, as in the case of Serial Productions, or if you’re funded by a backer that doesn’t need to directly make money from the project, e.g., Apple TV+.) Some expect the format to shrink dramatically or commissions for such shows to come attached with significantly more unreasonable demands. “All short-run podcasts will be produced in three weeks with a staff of one for $5,000,” one studio co-founder dryly predicted.

So is there a way to save the limited-run podcast format? Interestingly, one common prediction for 2023 seems to suggest that there may be: A number of people predicted that we’ll see more and more publishers consolidating their various shows into fewer feeds so that each individual feed functions more like an internal discovery mechanism. (The Economist, by the way, already does this to great effect.)

Other people were hoping for more prosaic changes in 2023. Several people hoped for shorter podcasts and a wish for more shows that break from the standard 45-to-60-minute-episode form — or that take any advantage of the fact that a podcast doesn’t have to look and sound a certain way. And in the wake of 2022, there was also considerable new excitement around the possibilities of chatcasts, thus far underrealized. A representative comment to that effect: “More creative always-on shows! We haven’t cracked the business model for middling-quality series, really, and the popularity of shows like Normal Gossip or Maintenance Phase shows that when they work, they work! Creative people can produce strong, talk-based shows, not just famous people!”

All of which is to say it’s not all bad — or at least it won’t be bad forever. While there’s strong concern for how difficult 2023 will almost certainly be, there’s still a lot to hope and play for.

Spicy Predictions, Rants, and Wishes for Things to Go Away

During our reporting, we also asked the question “What trends, creative- or business-wise, are you hoping to see go away in 2023?” The question was meant to be provocative, and responses did not disappoint — it turned out to be a robust space for venting. Here, some of the best answers:

➽ “We need to place a 12-month moratorium on TV rewatch podcasts for the sake of everyone.”

➽ “Celebrity/TV-cast chatcasts can hopefully level out? I think we have plenty.”

➽ “We really don’t need more celebrity-anchored podcasts where the celebrities are simply interviewing their friends or, worse, subbing in as narrators when the journalists who did the work should have been the ones to host the show.”

➽ “Companies blowing their entire podcasting budgets on flashy shows with high-profile hosts who clearly don’t want to host a podcast.”

➽ “People completely undervaluing the resources it takes to make a professional-sounding show. I hope Misha [Euceph] keeps tweeting out the goods!

➽ “It has to be the year that true crime subsides. It has to be. It just can’t continue like this for much longer. There are no more murders left to regurgitate!”

➽ “True crime. Please, God.”

➽ “I’m sick of stories about bad men being bad that ponder why they’re so bad. There are literally millions of other types of people in this world to center your story on. Think bigger.”

➽ “Hiring TV and film execs to run podcast shops. The mediums are different. Those roles require people to make decisions that affect what shows get made, who gets to make a show, how things get made, and the reasons for making that said show. The job of an exec is simple: Have a vision. Unfortunately, most of these people lack any vision that would push this medium forward. And we’re seeing it now with the projects they decide to green-light.”

➽ “Failed TV executives creeping into our industry, tossing their mediocre ideas at podcast companies and networks, then using that podcast IP to make it into a TV show or documentary. It’s gotta stop.”

➽ “The tendency for IP-driven content to really do the bare minimum in terms of storytelling in the hopes that a familiar face or name will make up for the shortcomings of plot.”

➽ “Audio fiction that feels expressly made for TV adaptation.”

➽ “This idea of big podcast entities remaining ‘neutral’ despite who they decide to associate with … I want to make it clear for those who have the luxury of not thinking about this every day: When you give space to anti-queer, anti-trans voices, what follows is violence against queer and trans people. What follows is people like me, people like your queer and trans loved ones, getting hurt or killed. There’s nothing neutral about providing a platform for hate.”

➽ “Studios/networks doing massive rights grabs from creators — paying them peanuts or nothing at all for the rights — and then not really leveraging the rights and also not letting the rights revert to the creators.”

➽ “Despite what I think is actually going to happen, I would love to see top-down content decision-making go away. This year … two-thirds of my gigs are just marketing podcasts! I cannot think of something most producers like myself could be less excited about. Can we bring back magazine style? Or shows that have random unrelated episodes that are one-offs?”

➽ “I hope we move away from the limited series of eight episodes, a mailbag follow-up, and then three feed-drop episodes years later. It doesn’t make anyone money, no one remembers them after the final ep comes out, and it’s a waste of (usually a public-radio station’s) time, effort, and money.”

➽ “Shows that force segments just for the sake of having segments. Let the conversation flow, baby!”

➽ “The decline of TAL as a relevant tastemaker.”

➽ “The phrase Here’s the thing about …

This Could Be a Rough Year for the Podcast Industry