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The Booming Podcast Business: Why Do You Listen?

A picture taken on February 8, 2019 in Paris shows a smartphone and its earphones as an audio podcast is being played. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on February 8, 2019 in Paris shows a smartphone and its earphones as an audio podcast is being played. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

One-third of Americans over 12 listen to podcasts. But just as the business gets booming, are there already too many podcasts?


Nicholas Quah, proprietor of Hot Pod Media. He writes, edits and publishes the leading trade newsletter about the podcast industry. Contributing writer to New York Magazine and Vulture, where he covers podcasting. (@nwquah)

Gretta Cohn, founder of Transmitter Media, a creative podcast company. Formerly executive producer and head of new show development at Earwolf and Midroll Media. (@GrettaCohn)

Chris Richards, pop music critic for the Washington Post. (@Chris__Richards)

Editor’s note: Meghna Chakrabarti is also the host of “Modern Love: The Podcast,” produced by WBUR and based on The New York Times’ popular series of weekly reader-submitted essays.

From The Reading List

New York Times: “Have We Hit Peak Podcast?” — “In 2016, Morgan Mandriota and Lester Lee, two freelance writers looking to grow their personal brands, decided to start a podcast. They called it ‘The Advice Podcast’ and put about as much energy into the show’s production as they did the name. (After all, no one was paying them for this. Yet.) Each week, the friends, neither of whom had professional experience dispensing advice, met in a free room at the local library and recorded themselves chatting with an iPhone 5.

“‘We assumed we’d be huge, have affiliate marketing deals and advertisements,’ Ms. Mandriota said.

“But six episodes in, when neither Casper mattresses nor MeUndies had come knocking, the friends quit. Today, Ms. Mandriota says the same D.I.Y. spirit that made having a podcast ‘alluring’ is precisely what doomed the project. ‘You can talk about the trees outside as much as you want, but if you’re not going to serve listeners and do it in a way that’s engaging, your chances of going viral are low,’ she said, calling her show ‘the most makeshift podcast, with mediocre advice.’

“It’s no wonder that the phrase ‘everyone has a podcast’ has become a Twitter punch line. Like the blogs of yore, podcasts — with their combination of sleek high tech and cozy, retro low — are today’s de rigueur medium, seemingly adopted by every entrepreneur, freelancer, self-proclaimed marketing guru and even corporation. (Who doesn’t want branded content by Home Depot and Goldman Sachs piped into their ears on the morning commute?) There are now upward of 700,000 podcasts, according to the podcast production and hosting service Blubrry, with between 2,000 and 3,000 new shows launching each month. In August William Morrow will publish a book by Kristen Meinzer, a co-host of the popular ‘By the Book’ podcast. Its title: ‘So You Want to Start a Podcast.’ ”

Washington Post: “Are podcasts killing music or just wasting our time?” — “I’m about to kick a hornet’s nest — and if this were a podcast, you would now hear the crunch of a boot perforating a hive, followed by the intensifying hum of inconvenienced hornets. But, fortunately, this isn’t a podcast, so my punt shall remain silent, and here it is: I’m against podcasts.

“I think they’re tedious and samey and sedative, and when I’m feeling especially cranky, I consider them an enemy of music. Most podcasts are conversations for people to eavesdrop on — recorded talk that precludes real-life talk about real life with zombie talk about podcasts. Also, I like music. With all of the world’s unheard songs beckoning us with their endless mystery, why would anyone choose to waste their precious listening hours on a podcast?

“Asking that question makes me feel very alone. In a March cover story, New York Magazine called the podcast ‘the most significant and exciting cultural innovation of the new century,’ offering lots of boffo numbers to back it up. First, there were those 340 million downloads of ‘Serial,’ the true-crime investigative blockbuster that made ‘podcast’ a household word back in 2014. Then there was that $230 million transaction in February, when Spotify bought the podcast network Gimlet Media, foreshadowing juicier deals to come. And now there are well over a half-million podcasts currently in circulation, with new ones sprouting each day.”

The Verge: “Podcasters need listening data, so Nielsen is going to call people’s homes to ask for it” — “Nielsen, a company best known for tracking TV shows’ popularity, is getting into the podcast data collection business. The company will begin assembling information on podcast listeners’ consumption habits, like their genre preferences and how long they listen to shows, and it will then sell access to that data to podcasters and podcast ad networks. The information could help these companies sell ads, especially because they often have little insight into their listeners’ broader consumer habits.

“Nielsen’s initial clients are some of the industry’s biggest names, including, iHeartPodcast Network, Cadence13, Midroll, Westwood One, and Cabana. Given that these companies sell ads for podcasts, they’ll likely use the database to build a more enticing pitch for advertisers.

“To build the database, Nielsen will poll random Americans about podcasts and then give its clients the opportunity to list their shows among those that people say they consume. The end goal is that podcasters will know more about their listeners and more about who enjoys podcasts more generally.”

Washington Post: “Spotify’s podcast acquisitions will bring a lot of money into a tiny industry” — “Podcasting in the United States is about to become Big Business.

“Spotify, the world’s biggest music-streaming company, announced Wednesday it is buying two acclaimed podcasting companies, Gimlet Media and Anchor, as it tries to expand its empire of ears. The terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but Spotify is rumored to have paid upward of $200 million for Gimlet alone, according to Recode, which first reported the news.

“The deal is likely to cause a major shift in the podcasting world. Suddenly, an industry that has been historically low-budget, often fueled by crowdfunding or merchandise and bringing in minimal ad revenue, is about to be flooded with an unparalleled amount of money and resources. Already the second-largest podcast platform, Spotify has said it plans to spend as much as $500 million on podcast-related deals in 2019. The company plans to use the same tool kit it did with streaming — an emphasis on personalized content and data collection — to turn podcasting into a much bigger, much more lucrative enterprise.

Allison Pohle produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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