Is the Podcast Boom Over?

Podcast Boom
A podcasting studio nicknamed “The Podcave.” Picture from Tim Wilson via Flickr

By Justin Kempf

Is the Podcast Boom Over?

This week NPR announced it would cancel four podcasts. They included InvisibiliaRough TranslationLouder than a Riot, and Everyone and their Mom. This is the latest in a round of layoffs that have affected the larger podcast industry. Indeed, many already believe the podcast boom is over. Last month The New York Times featured a story about widespread layoffs and show cancellations at some of the major podcast production companies. Perhaps the most consequential is Spotify who has had three rounds of layoffs in five months including the chief content officer. Spotify is important for podcasting, because it is the largest platform for podcast listeners and has invested more than $1 billion into content in recent years.

Part of the problem is podcasting has become too saturated. Lots of shows got launched during the pandemic (including Democracy Paradox). But most of those were smaller niche shows. The real podcast boom came afterwards as celebrities and politicians launched their own shows. This growth came as podcast companies invested large sums of money into established names rather than proven podcasters with a passion for the medium.

Lately I have noticed a large number of shows either end their runs or scale back significantly. Obviously, creators continue to launch new shows. However, fewer shows seem to survive. Big name shows have become less common as ad money has decreased over the past few months. But I also notice smaller niche shows struggle to survive. Most of these shows do not depend on ad revenue. Still, they do experience disappointment when they attract fewer listeners than expected. Some of that comes from unrealistic expectations. Few people have a good sense of how many listeners to expect until after they launch.

The Future of Podcasting

I sincerely hope the decline in big budget podcasts will create more space for independent podcasters. Many saw the gigantic investments into podcasting as a positive development for independent podcasters. However, it actually made it harder to succeed, because the money attracted big names and celebrities into the medium. Almost none of the contracts went to new talent discovered through small or medium-sized podcasts. Instead, companies invested in long established shows or celebrities or politicians with preexisting followings.

Still, those high-profile shows drew many new listeners to the medium. According to Triton Digital, podcast downloads increased 20% last year and average downloaded hours per listener increased substantially as well. The fear is the pullback from the major production companies will lead to fewer listeners in the future. Nonetheless, many of those listeners do not look for small or independent podcasts anyway. So, the impact for most podcasts is unclear.

This is an uncertain time for nearly all podcasts. While I do not foresee podcasting will disappear anytime in the near future, I do anticipate greater listener consolidation into fewer shows. I foresee something similar to what happened in the news industry years ago with the collapse of local newspapers around the country. Even though listeners continue to increase, they disproportionately gravitate to the most popular shows. We need to continue to support independent podcasts. Please become an advocate for your favorite shows and consider supporting them financially when you can.

About the Author

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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