Podcasting has finally gone corporate. A full half decade after Serial, the true-crime show that gave the medium its break-out moment in 2014, truly big money is finally flowing into the podcasting world. This month, Spotify, the music streaming behemoth, decided to buy Gimlet, a podcasting firm with a significant catalogue of well-produced shows like Reply All and Homecoming, which was adapted into an Amazon Prime series last year.
Spotify’s decision to get into the podcasting game was itself newsworthy. The Swedish company has spent the last decade altering the economics of the music industry, and building a giant user base in the process. As with Netflix, then, any move the company makes is significant. But it was the amount spent on buying Gimlet that truly made people sit up and take notice: $230 million.
That is a massive amount of money. And Spotify did not stop there. On the same day, it also announced the acquisition of Anchor, a software firm that makes it easier to create and distribute podcasts, for around $110 million. Together, the two purchases represent a huge bet on a medium that has seen massive growth in audience and attention over the past few years, even if revenue and monetisation has lagged behind.
News of the big-money deals reverberated around the podcasting world, which is centred on the US but has pockets of creators and enthusiasts all over the world, including in India.
Celebration and anxiety
For many, the Spotify news was cause for celebration. This is based on the hope that the music streaming firm, which is at its heart a big tech company, will put its weight behind fixing some of the core issues that continue to dog podcasting: how users find shows (discovery), how to track listeners (analytics) and how to make money (monetisation). Helping solve some of those problems could be good for the industry at large, even in places like India where Spotify has yet to formally enter.
But the deals also brought with them some anxiety.
To understand why, one has to go back to another open-source digital medium that had a similar explosion in popularity before slowly being swallowed up by internet giants: blogging.
The blogging-podcasting comparison is not new – people have been making it since podcasts emerged on the scene in the late 2000s – yet it continues to hold up remarkably well. Both were upgrades to analog media, print and radio, that were supercharged by democratisation. On the creation side, practically anyone could start a blog or, today, a podcast. Indeed, once common jokes about how any bored person on the internet just starts a blog has been updated to feature podcasts instead.
And on the distribution side, the entire medium sat on an open-source platform – the same one in fact, called Really Simple Syndication – which made it easy for bloggers and podcasters to reach anyone online.
Blogs = podcasts?
But then blogging changed. The very first blogs were hosted on individual websites. Later, services like Blogspot, Blogger, LiveJournal and Xanga turned up, retaining the core tenets of the blogging while simplifying (and corporatising) the creation process and the underlying architecture.
On the content side, blogging was “professionalised” with companies like Gawker and the Huffington Post buying or starting blogs, and seeking to aggressively make money through advertising or sponsored posts. And finally, when Facebook and Twitter entered the game, they scooped up users that had earlier been distributed across hundreds of disparate networks.
Bringing all of the world’s users onto the same platform initially meant more reach for everyone. But the proprietary algorithms, built on a need to extract more “engagement” and time-spent from its users, encouraged the worst sort of behaviour, whether in headlines or in the comments.
Blogging still exists today, on sites like Medium, through ‘notes’ on Facebook and in short 140-280 character bursts on Twitter. But the landscape is remarkably different from what would have greeted a visitor to the internet in the mid-2000s.
Could that be the fate of the podcasting world too? The medium is currently poised quite similarly. It is stubbornly open-source, using RSS pipes that are free for all to use, despite the best efforts of a number of companies. There are very few “walled gardens”, meaning podcasts that one needs to pay to access. But that also means they are decentralised – making them hard to monetise at scale.
Audio ≠ text
The nature of audio adds additional complexity for tech companies to commodify the medium in the way it did for text. Unlike blog posts or articles, for example, you cannot simply drive traffic on the basis of a catchy headline, with material that subsequently disappoints the reader. Clickbait is much less of a problem.
And the nature of audio makes it hard to skim or turn into snippets. This means that podcast listeners are much more engaged with the material they are consuming, compared to other forms like text or even web video. But that also makes it hard to scale.
As far as some are concerned, this places podcasts at the heart of the “slow web” movement. This represents a small but growing consensus that the attention-seeking portions of the internet – Facebook and Twitter and YouTube – are just data-hungry behemoths seeking to profit off the time humans spend on their platforms in pursuit of some larger machine-learning goal that doesn’t necessarily benefit those people (or even society at large). This “junk food” social media economy has been blamed for everything from the spread of fake news to the re-emergence of a virulently racist right globally to fundamentally endangering democracy.
The “slow web” is a response to that centralised, data-hungry internet. An effort to take back control of our digital experiences from the attention-seeking companies. And podcasts, as a medium that isn’t easily commodified, seems like a natural fit.
“Against a backdrop of media malaise, podcasting offers hope for a healthy ecosystem that treats listeners with respect, gives publishers a direct relationship with audiences, and gives voice to new talent and communities long missing from the airwaves. Podcasting is the slow food movement of the media world.
Podcasting’s “bugs” – difficult to scan, share, comment on – are actually its features. With Facebook and YouTube’s ceaseless sneezing, publishers are very much in need of podcasting’s antiviral cure.”— - Jake Shapiro, CEO, RadioPublic
This brings us back to Spotify. In the mid-2000s, one might have looked at blogging and concluded that the decentralised, user-friendly internet was thriving. But all of that disappeared in just a matter of a few years.
The fear that comes with Spotify’s entry is that the natural defences podcasts have against commodification and scale could be knocked down by a company that has massive technical resources and, having paid a huge amount of money to enter the game, will need to ensure that the investment does not go to waste.
As tech analyst Ben Thompson put it, “it is worth considering if this is good for the podcasting industry generally. After all, to return to the web analogy, the price of the Internet finally monetizing effectively was the shift of content to centralized platforms like Facebook.”
Thompson actually concludes that it will be good for the industry, though it will mean one big player, Spotify, and many much smaller ones. The streaming giant is also likely to alter a few tenets, like the openness – by insisting on shows that only exist on its platform – and also the use of basic RSS, since it will want an approach that collects more listenership data.
For many, that was always inevitable, and the main takeaway from Spotify’s massive deals should simply be a $500-million vote of confidence in the podcasting industry. India remains a huge distance away from anything close to those numbers, and so some of these concerns may just be academic for the moment, though they represent something important about the industry.
Meanwhile, Indian podcasters have something else to look forward to: Spotify was spotted as coming pre-installed on Indian units of Samsung’s latest flagship phone. After years of rumours, could the Swedish streaming giant, and some of its podcasting money, finally make its way to India?
Are you excited by Spotify’s entry into the podcasting space? Tell me about it at email@example.com. Podcast picks is a fortnightly column that highlights interesting podcasts and covers the industry. Read earlier columns here.