How Spotify Tried to Take Over Podcasting
Paris Marx is joined by Eric Silver to discuss Spotify’s big plan to dominate podcasting, why it’s now pulling back from those efforts, and the difference between highly produced and more independent podcasts.
Eric Silver is a podcast producer and head of development at Multitude.
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Paris Marx: Eric, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Eric Silver: Paris, I’m so happy to be here. This is so exciting; I could talk about the podcast industry forever. Thank you so much for having me on, on one of the shows that I listen to all the time.
PM: Awesome. I feel like the audience hears too much, I love the show. I listen to the show. But this is it right? The people who I talked to tend to be, also, the people who would be interested in this kind of stuff.
ES: Paris, you deserve people saying nice things to you [Paris laughs]. There’s no comment box! All you get are emails and tweets saying you mispronounced something. You’re allowed to have people say nice things to you, to your face. I’m going to give you that present.
PM: I appreciate that! So, to jump right into it, obviously, we’re talking about the podcast industry, the podcast business, what actually goes into this. I was surprised last year when we did some episodes on the creator economy, and the influencer economy, that people were really interested in these sorts of topics. So, I figured, since they’re listening to a podcast, they would probably be interested in knowing a bit more about how everything works around this as well. Not just about Tech Won’t Save Us, but this broader industry and the influences on it and how tech has been moving in. So, just to start to get an overview, how did you get into podcasting? And how would you describe the industry that exists around it?
ES: Oh, that’s such a good question. I kind of got lucky because I feel like my journey, or how I started in podcasting, reflects how all the different ways that people got into podcasting, but how I was on the outside of where it originally started. So, I was a high school English teacher, back in 2013, and I was listening to a lot of WNYC in my car. I live in New York, and I had a car because I hate myself [laughs]. So, I was driving listening to WNYC, and then this new show, called Startup, came along in 2014, where this guy, Alex Blumberg, who used to work at This American Life, started a podcast company, and he was going to record it and put it out and share with people what it was like. And I’m like: This is so interesting, I can’t believe this is something I could do. And when I stopped being a high school English teacher, because there was a grades fixing scandal at my high school. So, I got disillusioned with public education kind of quickly. I’m like: I could do this. This makes sense to me, I love how you can tell a story with audio, both in this formal way that they do with This American Life — this kind of long-form audio journalism — but also just listening to people talk about stuff. I love sports, so listening to sports talk radio, and having conversations like that. My phone is plugged in, and I can just listen, and I can cue it up whenever I’m driving or doing whatever.
So it took a while for me to drive my way there, because it turns out, the only way to get educated on how to make a podcast was if you were an intern at these public radio stations. Paris, imagine if the CBC was not a full thing for the country, but just distributed a little bit to little public radio stations in various cities. And they kind of did their own drives, and they’re related to NPR, but not really. It’s very confusing. But the point is they’ve been doing these types of things for a very long time, but you needed to be an intern there, which means you were in college, and also it was unpaid. So, you needed to do that or you could be a volunteer, where you basically worked there for free for only a $30/day stipend. And I couldn’t get any jobs because I didn’t have enough experience to work at these new private companies like Gimlet, and no one would teach me how to make a podcast. There was one summer camp in New Hampshire, for adults that would teach you how to make podcasts, and I couldn’t do it.
So slowly, I got these jobs that were podcast adjacent. And my friend Brandon, who I worked at SiriusXM with, taught me how to record and edit. And finally years later, in 2016, a bunch of podcasts got together and we started Multitude, the collective, and we created a business based off of that, making shows for other people and helping other people and selling ads. We were able to do it ourselves because there was such a large gap because no one would teach us. So, we learned it ourselves, and then we realized there was a lot of space to do a good job. I say this all the time, especially in a post-Spotify owning everything world: I’m so glad so many people are bad at the podcasting industry, probably the same way that bloggers feel. They don’t understand how to monetize and make this life sustainable. They’re like: We can exist and we can thrive. So, podcasting isn’t a dead, I think that the people who invested so much time into it, and coalesced around it and conglomerized. They failed spectacularly by giving a ton of money to Prince Harry and Megan, and giving all the money to Joe Rogan. Instead of cultivating the actual business of making podcasts, creating a community, and then selling ads and getting people to pay for it.
PM: It’s so fascinating to hear you say that because I feel like it picks up on something that we were just talking about before we started recording. You’re talking about listening to The Gimlet podcasts and learning that model and being interested of getting in through that more official, professional route that, I guess, was very common in the podcast industry. And that was an element of this that was completely out of my understanding or was not something I had any association with when I thought about podcasting for all those years, that you’re talking about. It was really something, I would say, I learned more about as Spotify started to take things over. And I started to learn about this broader ecosystem, because for me when I thought about podcasting, it was independent interview shows and chat shows like Trash Future, or something like that that predated Tech Won’t Save Us. And these were the types of things that I was listening to, and so when I approached starting my own podcast in 2020, it was kind of like: Of course, I was going to look at these models for how to set this thing up. Of course, I couldn’t start one of these long-form, very expensive podcasts, put together anyway. But like that way of approaching it just seemed completely divorced from my understanding of how this all worked. And so I think it’s fascinating now to explore what this broader industry looks like and how it works.
ES: I think that that makes a lot of sense, because when you look at an independent podcast — the making of money, the business side — is almost the same as making the show. Okay, what are we going to talk about this week? Who’s going to edit it? When is it going to come out? And also, are we going to have ads, are we going to have a Patreon? How are you going to make this thing worthwhile to us, the people making it. Then as soon as the big forces come and try to blow it up, then it becomes an industry. What an incredible episode, by the way, with Emily Hund, I love this episode, but as we’ve seen there, people were so surprised in a post-financial crisis that someone wanted to give them money for the little blog they had. And I’m saying that not to be dismissive, I think that there’s a self consciousness from making a little thing and then it gets big. The proto-influencers that Emily Hund was talking about, when someone said: Hey, can I give you some money to run an ad? And they were like: Oh, my God, yes. Thank you, I love that. Because this was happening in the 2010s, although the independent podcaster was like: Oh, my God, what money? This is my stupid little podcast I have. They were aware from the jump — that there is money to be made in digital media creation.
I think that this is very interesting how the podcast and the influencer are in kind of conversation with each other, that we’re all part of the creator economy. In that the influencer is exactly on these social media platforms that have an algorithm and they follow the algorithm. While the podcast is relatively very slow media, it uses the RSS feed, this ancient piece of technology. There is no comment box, you just put it out in the world and then people come back, in their own way, back to us. And yet, the way that you make ads on podcasts are very similar to the way that influencers are. Like you just said, they look at your reach, and how popular you are. And they’re like: Hey, I made up some math, and here’s the amount of money I think you deserve. But podcasts, keep that download secret, that’s not a public number. While the influencer is very public. So, it’s kind of funny how these two things are in conversation with each other.
And yet the podcast is like, I always say, it’s the speed run of how all of the other media industries are dealing with. Everything that happened in blogging and YouTube in the 2000s and then into the 2010s is happening super fast in the podcasting world. So when you’re looking at that independent creator, who’s like: Oh, yeah, of course, I’ll have a Patreon; of course, I’ll try to sell ads. Dynamic ads, I don’t know, they kind of are annoying, but should I do them? Is it passively to make money? I don’t know. Or should I give this up to a network, who will then decide whatever they want to? Or should I just do whatever Spotify is telling me to do? They’re just getting barraged by so much stuff, because so many people were ready to disrupt the podcasting industry — the tech industry, Hollywood, and media people — are all trying to disrupt it all at the same time. It’s a little bit of tech, a little bit of blogging, a little bit of a backdoor for pilots. And that’s why we’re at where we’re at with podcasting. And so much has happened over the last few years now, everyone’s declaring it dead.
PM: And let’s get into that, because I think your description of it is really interesting as we’ve seen media, film and television, we’ve seen the growth of YouTube over two decades .We’ve seen, as you say, what’s happened with blogging, and I think you could almost see Substack as a renewed version of more commercialized blogging, where the revenue models are easier to come across, so you’re not doing this for free.
ES: Substack, or the Aftermath, Defector new thing, which is happening this year, which is very interesting.
PM: Absolutely. Building on this development and also the failure and the difficulties in traditional media, and so now you have this move where all of these companies are seeing that there’s this — or at least there was — this opportunity in in podcasting, and we can talk about that, where it was using this old RSS feed; it was still relatively open. It was not as commercialized, and taken over as these other spaces. And so at least there was a belief by these larger companies that you could move in here and do something with it. And I want to dig into all that, but I think before we do so, maybe we should talk about these narratives that people have probably been seeing over the past year. Where I feel like on one hand, everything is supposedly going really poorly in podcasting, and a ton of shows are being canceled. And it’s the end of the world. But then on the other hand, when you dig into it, listener numbers are rising, listeners are spending more time actually listening to podcasts, like as individuals. And ad revenue is relatively healthy and seems to be poised to grow this year. So where’s the disconnect between these two narratives, where on one hand, things are the end of the world? And on the other hand, things seem to be okay?
ES: I think it all has to come down to money. I mean, this is a tech podcast. Money is much less cheap and now all the people knocking on the door are: You know all the money I gave you, for you to buy every single company, Spotify? I need that return. I wrote down a list of all of the notable companies that Spotify acquired and the people that they gave exclusive money to. Can I just read this out?
ES: Okay. February 2019, Spotify acquired Gimlet and Anchor. Gimlet made really high quality, high-touch, podcasts and Anchor would just let you kind of make whatever you wanted as fast as possible. Spotify then in March 2019, acquired Parcast, which basically was like a true crime podcast factory. They then got the exclusive rights to The Last Podcast on The Left in November 2019, which is kind of like a spooky true crime-y podcast. May 2020, Spotify announced the exclusive rights to Joe Rogan for $100 million, at the time.
PM: At least.
ES: At least, it’s more now and they got to renew him soon, which is going to be even more money if they end up doing. November 2020, Spotify acquired Megaphone, which was hosting and also dynamic ads, which inserts ads whenever you’re listening to a podcast. They then acquired this company called Pods, which was a podcast discovery app. Recommending podcasts is still the white whale of technology, but I still think that the best way to do it is hearing it from a friend. They’re still trying to disrupt that. December 2021, Spotify acquired Whooshkaa, a company only existing to get acquired, a podcast tech company that developed specialized technology that allowed radio broadcasters to easily turn their existing audio content into on-demand podcasts. Okay, we’re still buying. Spotify bought Chartable and Podsites, two podcast data companies. And that is kind of it, but there’s still some small stuff in between that I glossed over from February 2019, for three years, they were just buying everything. And then this year, they’re like: Hey, maybe we shouldn’t have given so much money to Harry and Megan to not make any shows. Maybe we shouldn’t have given money to Obama and Springsteen to make six episodes of a podcast, and then no one remembers it anymore.
PM: You can’t blame Obama and Harry and Megan, they made off pretty well with Spotify money there.
ES: That’s what I mean! When you give a celebrity some money they’re going to do, like everybody, they’re going to do the bare minimum unless you tell them to do something. And if you’re so dazzled by their celebrity, they’re going to play on that. I don’t want to leave all of this at Spotify’s feet. It’s notable to say that SiriusXM acquired Stitcher in 2020, and then promptly shut down the podcast app a few years later. They bought Stitcher for $325 million from E. W. Scripps, but E. W. Scripps bought it from Midroll Media for $4.5 million, four years earlier. This is kind of wild how that number just ballooned. But it’s also notable that Entercom, which is now known as Odyssey, bought Pineapple Street Media, which is in prestigious podcasting studio, and Cadence13, which was an ad distribution platform and production company, for a combined $70 million. And now Odyssey has just filed for bankruptcy.
PM: That seems to be the story with so many things over the past year where we had these significant acquisitions. And now, so many of these really experimental plays — whether in podcasting or elsewhere — have resulted in bankruptcies or getting rid of these companies that these larger ones bought, assuming that it was going to be this extension of what they were doing. But maybe it’s worth talking about why Spotify was moving into this space, because I know that one of the general narratives that we have is that there was this podcasting explosion during the pandemic, and we can get into that. But you talked about how the acquisition of Gimlet was February 2019, which was about a year before everything really took off with COVID. So, what was leading Spotify in this direction to see podcasts as this thing that it really wanted to take over and move into?
ES: I think it became the new thing that at a company, they kind of look around for the youngest person in the room and say: Hey, make us a Twitter or a YouTube channel or make us a Twitch stream. Podcasting became that, but I think that there were a lot of very popular things that breached the zeitgeist. I mean, Startup was a little bit more niche, but a Serial was huge! And everyone was like: Oh, that’s the podcast. And I think that for so many, it still is the podcast. It’s also worthwhile to note that Serial was made by another former This American Life journalist. That’s what Sarah Koenig was doing before, and it was a spinoff of This American Life. It was first premiered on this massive radio station, that had a podcast RSS feed, and was premiered on that. It’s also worth to note after that there’s S-Town, which was another very popular true crime show, came out from them. And then the New York Times bought Serial Productions in 2020. So, now it’s a part of whatever the hell the New York Times is doing with their podcast division, as they’re pumping out The Daily and making Michael Barbaro into a sex symbol?
Spotify also acquired The Ringer, which was the new thing from Bill Simmons after his stint at ESPN. And people started listening to podcasts a lot. They started building these relationships with the people making them. I think it’s funny how the word ‘chat show’ has kind of permeated as the thing, which is just people talking. Because I think that’s the thing that actually is the backbone of the industry. The relationships that people have with the hosts, and how much they love listening to the host bounce off of each other. But when you say chat show, it feels really derogatory. In the way that it’s just like: Ah, it’s like a talk show. That’s what my mom watches in the middle of the day. It’s kind of like: Oh, it’s so low class; it’s so low culture. And yet, when we look at Joe Rogan, every man under 45 who’s just asking questions listens to Joe Rogan. He has a massive, devoted community and audience that revolves around him. And him and all of his friends do stuff and just hang out in Austin and say, weird trans jokes. They’re all terrible.
But it’s like that really is what podcasting is in the way that you’ve talked about on the show, about how ads are sold on the internet and how influencers make their money. People are selling ads on podcasts because listeners trust the podcaster. And the podcaster knows they have a devoted fan base. I love podcast listeners; you guys are so devoted and wonderful, and I feel like we do have a strong parasocial, but if you respect it, it’s a respectable relationship between creator and audience. I think it’s the stickiest medium that exists out there. I feel like everyone who listens to the show is very into it, as opposed to I don’t know throwing up a Twitch stream. Which I do, throwing a Twitch stream up for like six hours and I don’t really pay attention. I think that that’s where they’re trying to make money. So, it’s kind of funny how many people when Pineapple Street and Gimlet were being invested in, and what’s happening with like Pushkin and Malcolm Gladwell making his own podcasting company, and these prestigious podcasts being known as the types of podcasts. It’s like, but that’s very funny, you got to invest so much money into six episodes. And then how do you build audience that way?
It’s almost like these two things are in conflict with each other — the “prestigious” version, and what podcasting is, which is relatable conversations that people love. I call them conversational podcasts, because it does also take a lot of time and effort to make them sound and feel conversational. It’s also interesting to think that tech is moving in and a lot of money is moving in. The prestige podcast route came from public radio, where you get money in a nonprofit sort of way. So it’s like, what is the profit center? How do you make money when you spend a bunch of work hours and money on the show that only puts out six episodes? There is no profit center, which explains why Gimlet was trying to sell itself to Spotify the whole time. How did they make money? I don’t know. I don’t know if they knew. And it’s kind of funny, the way that Gimlet, as a tech story, is no different than all the other tech stories, where we’re going to make something, we’re going to make it tasty, and then we’re going to get bought. That is the step-by-step plan. That’s how it feels looking back on it in 2023.
PM: Because we’re in the zero interest rate era, we can keep stringing this along for a little while until we get that acquisition, and then Spotify, or whoever, has to deal with it. I want to pick back up on what you were saying about the relationships and the different types of podcasts in just a minute. But I want to come back to Spotify, because there’s another angle to what you’re talking about as well, where Spotify is this audio company, it will position itself that way, but at its core, it’s a music company. And one of the reasons for moving into podcasting was to try to diversify away from its reliance on music to also have these other of areas of revenue, or listening or what have you, that was not just about giving this money back to the recording labels to then distribute to the artists.
There’s a set formula there for what it has to be, and so as it expands into other forms of audio, that disrupts that and creates potentially new profit centers. But as we know with its approach to podcasting, that is not necessarily how it played out because of what we’ve been seeing over the last little while. But I feel like there’s something notable in the approach to podcasting that Spotify took, and I was hoping you could talk about this a little bit more where, we were saying that the podcast is dependent on the RSS feed. But Spotify really wanted to enclose this, really wanted to take it over. And also wanted to ensure that the shows that were part of its ecosystem, were exclusive to Spotify, you had to go to Spotify to listen to them. So can you talk to us about the approach that Spotify took, and how different that was from how podcasting usually works?
ES: It’s interesting that Spotify was trying to win the tech game against Apple, who wasn’t even really playing. Apple is too busy making kajillions of dollars on their hardware. They dabble, in the way that Apple TV+, there’s just these wild swings. It’s like: Well, they could just do whatever they want, but Spotify is trying to beat them, even though they’re not even participating. So, they want people on their app doing everything. It’s funny, you brought up the music thing, and I think that that’s why people saw podcasting as so tasty, because it was a new medium that was developing but didn’t have any of the red tape like music does, dealing with royalties for the artists and also for the record companies. So, it’s almost like Spotify tried to do a vertical monopoly. It reminds me of the movies in the 30s, where it’s like: We own the actors; we own the director; we own the script, and you’re going to film it on our lot. Our editor is going to be overseen by a guy in a suit standing over his shoulder, making sure he’s not communist, and then we’re going to put it out in our theaters.
And that feels very similar to what Spotify did. They bought Anchor so that you made the podcast inside of the Anchor Spotify app, and you edited it there too. You put it out through Spotify and you could even make it Spotify exclusive, or at least Spotify-privileged. Well, where is the RSS feed? The whole point of the RSS feed is it goes anywhere. That’s why people have podcatchers, as these apps. You could use Apple and you could use Spotify, but you could use Pocket Casts, or you could use Podcast Attic, or you could use Overcast. It’s just a place that grabs the RSS feed. It’s just kind of out there. My favorite image on the internet, which I sent to you a little while ago, was from Spotify’s annual meeting, which they’ve been really blowing out recently. It’s almost like when Apple does their big thing, but Spotify’s is colorful. That’s how they want it to stand out. This from last year, Ashley Carman, who is a podcast reporter at Bloomberg, saw this slide, and it talks about the limitations of the RSS feed and how they call it outdated tech.
So, there’s a creator in one bubble and the fan in another bubble. And there’s one arrow going from the creator to the fan that says: Podcasting. And then there’s one below — it’s the same thing, the creator and fan bubbles — but there’s an arrow going both ways. And it says: Every other medium of the internet [Paris laughs]. They’re so mad that the RSS feed doesn’t harvest data! They hate it! And it demonstrates that Spotify wants to own it like old timey Hollywood. I think this demonstrates how much, when they acquired shows or studios like Joe Rogan or Call Her Daddy or Gimlet too, that they made them Spotify exclusives. Because podcasts listeners don’t understand it, and it’s not part of the medium, you don’t go to Twitch, you don’t go to YouTube, you go to your app, which can be anything. They’re like: Well, the show’s gone, so I guess I’m not going to listen to it anymore? I guess it’s just not publishing anymore. So, then it’s gone.
And this was proven! This was reported a few years ago, but the Gimlet union said that they told Spotify it would destroy their numbers. And Spotify was like: Ah, shut up. And then their numbers got destroyed. They lost 75% of their downloads. So then when Spotify is like: This sucks, and now Gimlet and Parcast are now apart of Spotify, those companies don’t exist. They’ve been subsumed into Spotify studios. It’s like: Well, it’s because your downloads were down. Well, how do you think that happened? It’s because no one knew where to get them, except for the 25% of Spotify app users. So again, it’s like Spotify is doing big company conglomerate things, when it doesn’t necessarily make sense for this nascent medium, built upon community and listening to those podcasts, and then giving $5 on Patreon or something, and then ads working and making sense. They can’t see the simple solutions in front of them because they’re too busy being a big tech company.
PM: Because everything is about scale and if you have some small podcasts that have a little Patreon or make a little bit of ad revenue, that’s not going to keep the investors happy or pay back the massive acquisition costs of bringing this in or achieve this grand revenue dreams that you have, if you’re a company like Spotify, and are trying to massively expand. You talked a bit about Apple, and I wonder how you compare that a bit with what Apple is doing. Because regardless of how invested it is, it is obviously still a big player in the space simply because of the scale that it has. Because so many people use the devices and as a result, then use the Apple Podcast app, because it’s just there on the phone and it’s easy to use. How do you compare Spotify’s move into the podcasts industry to the things that Apple has been doing?
ES: That’s interesting. I think Apple has started realizing they are the tortoise in this tortoise and the hare race, so they really should start walking at some point. So, they have kind of cleaned up some stuff; they’ve relied on metadata. They reveal your episode. They’re really into fiction, and they make it really easy to make seasons and designate seasons and episodes like it was a TV show. So they have picked it up a little bit and I think they’ve started their own way to pay them money, instead of going through Patreon. That’s the new way to take Patreon’s lunch. I still remember all of my old terrible bosses using the phrase ‘eat their lunch.’ And I feel like it’s just all of these executives trying to like beat each other, these rich guys, trying to beat each other in this way.
So, they realized they have to do some stuff. I think back to in like 2018-2019 when my biggest bugbear was no one knows where rated five stars on Apple podcasts came from. It was almost like a folk myth. It was like: Oh, if you get 100 five star reviews, then the algorithm or the editors who would put you on the podcast of the day, would put you up there and you’d get a massive boost? None of that was true! We just hoped. How else are you supposed to breakthrough? As I said, discovery still always has been quite difficult. It takes a lot of clicks to listen to a podcast. You really need a recommendation from a friend who’s like: No, no, this show is good, I promise. So Apple has let their largesse kind of speak for itself and the folk ideas of Apple, the company, almost spoke for itself in podcasting.
PM: It’s really fascinating when you talk about the myth that if you got so many five star reviews, all of a sudden, Apple would treat you differently or whatever. But you see that in so many different areas of whether people are self-published authors and trying to game the Kindle store, and figure out how Amazon is going to treat them and what when they need to publish and what how many pages they need. Or whatever in order for Amazon to be happy with them, or the right ways to post on Twitter so that your posts go up. It’s like, we’re always trying to find this way to game the algorithms or figure out how it’s going to work. There’s just all these black boxes, because they’re controlled by these corporations that don’t really care, as long as you’re making some cash for them or whatever. Especially with Apple, because it is growing its’ services business, which this would fit into, but the real money still comes from the iPhone at the end of the day.
ES: People try to think of podcasting like the other media that existed out there. It’s like: Oh, well there must be an algorithm. YouTubers are always having to pivot and always are having to figure out what makes sense. So, we should be doing something too. Obviously these rankings have to have some sort of formula behind them and isn’t just one person moving shows around. It has to be something. It’s still Apple, we’ve applied for plenty of spotlights or these forms that you see or don’t see or recommended to you. Then it’s very slow, and maybe they see us or maybe they just say no, or all of a sudden you’re on New and Noteworthy and you’re like: I How did this happen? I don’t know. Maybe I just sent the right email to the right person. And they had a free minute, so they moved your thing on to New and Noteworthy.
I think podcasting spent so much time looking at other mediums. It’d be like: We want to be like that. It reminds me a lot of what video games are like. I don’t know if you care about it, but the video game industry is also going through a massive layoff issue like podcasting is. And the Game Awards, which is supposed to be this big Oscar-like awards, are still very supplicant to movies. But video games are huge! Bideo games make so much money and it’s how I feel about podcasting. People wouldn’t be so invested in trying to break and disrupt podcasting if we weren’t important and doing something interesting. I’m not saying we’re huge because, again, the digital marketing budgets that people buy ads on are still the same digital marketing budgets that they throw thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars at their Instagram ads.
They go: Oh yeah, let’s try something in podcasting. Let’s try it. Let’s try it. It still is relatively small, but we’re growing and it keeps growing, and people love this stuff. It’s part of their daily routine and we, or podcasting, doesn’t have to fight the eyeballs conversation. Sports, like the NFL and the NBA, are always like: Oh, we got make sure people are we need our ratings and everything. You can listen to podcasts when you are driving, when you’re washing dishes, when you can’t watch a YouTube video. So, it’s almost like it’s something out of time and space. And yet, both the creators, because they’re so self-conscious about making their stupid little podcast, and the big companies that are like: Look at this silly little thing. They don’t see that it’s something that’s so unique, which is why I love it so much.
PM: That’s a really interesting point because podcasting is something that we think of as an audio medium. You stick your headphones in, you play it on your phone, or whatever, and then you can cook, you can go for a walk, you can drive your car, you can do the dishes. It really doesn’t matter. You don’t need to worry about looking at a screen to know what’s going on. But I feel like in the past year or so we’ve been seeing a real shakeout in social media where Twitter is not what it used to be because of the Elon Musk acquisition. People have moved to these other platforms like Mastodon and Bluesky and Threads. And there’s this real disruption that’s happening. Meanwhile, it feels like TikTok is taking off, Instagram and YouTube shorts are trying to emulate it. Elon Musk now says Twitter is going to go video first, however, that’s going to look. So, it feels like social media is moving in this direction, where there’s a big pivot to video happening, we’ll see if it’s going to stick. But it feels like there’s a push to do that in podcasting as well. On the one hand, so you have clips to share on TikTok, and Instagram and all this kind of stuff, to try to reach audience. But also Google is shutting down its podcast app and moving over to YouTube music and having the stuff on YouTube. How do you see this push to go to video in podcasting as well? Because it feels like, as a podcaster myself, it feels like there is a pressure to move in this direction.
ES: I think the clips thing, just the clips thing, it kind of makes sense. Let’s make some clips and distribute, them make sense? I talked for an hour, you’re not going to get convinced to listen to an hour of a podcast. That’s why so many people listen on 1.5x and 2x speeds, like I get it, for sure.
PM: That’s me!
ES: What an absolute sicko — I cannot belive that! So ridiculous [both laugh]. Whenever someone admits it to me, I’m like: Damn dog, you just told me that you eat frozen bread, toasted. I guess if that’s how you like it, that’s fine. But I felt very seen by the influencer episode, where it’s social media is kind of the bastion of: We got to keep changing, even if it’s good. We’re following trends and I guess video is the trend because everyone is making TikToks. I went into podcasting because I didn’t want to be a YouTuber; I didn’t want to follow the algorithm. And I wasn’t really stoked on having my face out there just yet because it was maybe how I was slowly coming to it. Also, I was a blogger and a writer. I was really excited. I liked Twitter, there were a bunch of research that said that most podcast listeners used Twitter, pre-Elon Musk. So it’s like: Oh, it was a link distribution thing. Oh, yeah, you think I’m funny, when I write? You might think I’m funny when I talk. Makes sense.
The pivot to video, this is the tech trend. We have to follow what they say, because that’s how we got to market this hard thing to market, so we’re going to do it the way that they say. At the same time, I’m not sure how TikTok helps. It’s kind of funny, you saw that there was an article a few months ago — time doesn’t mean anything — where they realized that TikTokers were using the podcasts set as the way that they made TikTok because they made them seem more authoritative.
PM: Yeah, I remember that!
ES: They just had a microphone and were wearing headphones. So, it’s almost like it’s a genre; it’s a form of TikTok. But TikTok wants you to stay on TikTok. It doesn’t want you to leave and click a link and go to an app. So it’s still like, I don’t know if TikTok is going to give me more downloads for my podcast. And just from the way that the whole thing is set up. I believe in experimenting, and it’s definitely the new frontier, but is it actually helpful? Is always the question for being a part of such a nascent medium like we are. I’m not sure that TikTok actually helps, because TikTok wants you to stay on the app. And how is that going to be a marketing tool for me? And this happens to a lot of people, I think a lot of people are big on TikTok, and then it doesn’t do anything. But we’ve seen this in the past. It was like: Oh, I’m huge on Twitter, I have a massive following. Well, I guess Instagram, actually works well for. But I have a massive Tumblr, you got to do something else. You got to have a book deal. Or you got to get a job as a comedy writer. I think this is like when we learned about drill, he’s just a dude.
If you can’t, where does the money come from unless you are literally doing the influence deals? Yes, I can be big on TikTok, but how does it actually go to my podcast, where I have a economic funnel setup? The whole point of making something and not being an influencer — in the way that we understand it now, not the proto and not the bloggers from the beginning from the Julie & Julia days — is like we made something so it stands in front of us. We want the work to stand and we want people to be into the work. Now, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a parasocial reality with it and a sense of authenticity of us being what we say we make and are. I think journalists — and bloggers and video creator and video essays and all these people, and streamers — all deal with this, because podcasting is decentralized.
We kind of had to figure it out on our own, because it wouldn’t be better if it was centralized if it was centralized. Spotify would be good at their jobs, and everyone would do the things Spotify is telling us to do. This is a really good example. A new thing is that Spotify has introduced a comment section.
PM: Yes, I hate this.
ES: It’s like Q&A for episodes, and we were kicking it around at Multitude. And we were like: Hey, should we start doing this? Should we invest in it? Should we do questions? I’m like: Wait a second! This is unhelpful for me, the creator. It doesn’t doing anything for me. It’s an add on for the Spotify app, so that it’s for users. It’s a user feature. And now I gotta to spend an extra, how many minutes a day, a week, a month, keeping up and publishing these comments and making new Q&A’s. I’m not going to; it doesn’t help me. It’s not for me — it’s for Spotify. We get tricked as creators, who make things, where people try to disguise things that are good for the platform as good for us. But we’re the ones with the audience, so they should be doing the thing for us, instead of trying to trick us.
PM: It’s really interesting, because I’ve encountered that feature as well, and I don’t use it, but it automatically added a question to my shows. And then I get random emails saying: Hey, there’s people who’ve responded to the Q&. And I’m like: What Q&A? But to pick up on what you were saying earlier, I feel very similarly about video. It’s obviously something that I’ve been throwing around now that it’s becoming a thing that’s expected and TikTok is growing. And whether we’re going to do clips as well, I don’t think we’ll ever record the whole episode, because part of the reason I wanted to do a podcast, instead of a YouTube show, was because it was audio and I didn’t need to be on video all the time. But earlier, before we went into talking about Spotify, you were talking about that relationship piece, and how these relationships, between the listeners, and the hosts are quite important. Especially in a long running show, an interview show or conversation show, as you would say, this does become a really important piece of what continues to drive listenership and gets more people to discover the show overtime. Which is difficult to have when you just have these short series, and what have you.
I feel like during the early stages of the pandemic, when people were in lockdown, and you still couldn’t be around a lot of people, I feel like, there was a lot of take off in a lot of different mediums, but I feel like podcasting, you had a lot of people starting podcasts to even just talk to people who they knew. And of course, this podcast started in April of 2020. But I feel like you also had a lot of people listening to podcasts, to listen to people and kind of have that relationship and hear these conversations, and things like, that at a time when our personal contact with people was limited. So I guess it’s a very broad question, feel free to answer it how you want, but what do you make of the importance of relationships in the medium of podcasting, in particular?
ES: So interesting — if we can get philosophical for a second, the way that anthropology intersects with tech — everyone felt very disenfranchised in 2020, on all parts of the political spectrum. And it’s like: Oh, if I just buy this microphone that has a USB wire, and I plug it into my computer, and I use one of the various things that records my voice with my bros, then I’m just going oto make the thing and it’s going to go out there. And I think it was a chance for everyone to say the thing they wanted to say. Now, some of that was like antivax garbage. But at the same time, a lot of that stuff was, for me, from my own leftist perspective, I think listening to that stuff and people wrestling with where the world was, and how our institutions failed us, especially surrounding the galvanization around the George Floyd demonstrations, and how so many people saw that the centrists, or Democrats, weren’t being helpful at all, and were sending out those cops to go get everybody. Also reckoning with our institutions failed us just about the pandemic at large.
Lots of people wanted to talk to each other, and then publish that and put it out there. That makes a ton of sense to me. I think at the same time, when we’re talking about the ad market, all the ads disappeared in 2020. Everyone was like: Uh-oh, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy. Our marketing budgets are gone. Everyone gets furloughed, there were no podcast ads for months. Now, that is — I’ll say this anecdotally, but I think a lot of people would say the same thing — our Patreon’s has grew significantly during that time. I think it was the small business idea started to latch on people’s minds of like: Oh, we need to support small businesses or then they will disappear, when everyone’s like: I gotta buy restaurant merch; I gotta buy plants and I gotta buy pillows and support my vintage stores. I mean that with no sense of glibness in my voice, I truly, and I think that the independent media creators also got into that bucket that everyone started supporting Patreons at higher and higher levels, and podcasts use Patreon quite a lot and have that deep relationship.
So, there’s something about hearing people in your brain, think about it, especially for AirPods, which I use all the time, you stick them into your ear holes, and then you hear people talking, and laughing, and debating, and fighting, and making jokes with each other and making inside jokes with each other, for that matter inside of your brain! There’s, of course, a very popular image of the young woman next to the people who are eating ice cream, the ad of eating ice cream, it’s like: This is how I feel when I’m listening to my podcasts. And it’s just like: Oh, we’re all friends. Of course they know me. It’s almost like you’re listening into the conversation, but because it’s so close to you, as a human, you almost feel like your brain is tricked to be in the same room. In the same way that our brains can’t fathom being in an airplane, because it’s so crazy that we’re in a tube flying through the air. And that’s why we cry so much on airplanes, I think it’s very similar. It’s just the way that our society has kind of developed, and I think it’s important.
Again, I love podcast listeners. And I also love, there’s no comment box, but people do go out of their ways, both to email us and tweet at us, and also see us at live shows and say: This show got me through a really hard time, and I appreciate you for making it. And I think that so many creators are embarrassed by it. The other thing about 2020, which is the beginning of everyone and their mom has a podcast, is we started being embarrassed by having a podcast. And I just don’t really understand it because it’s so good and important and could be the backbone of so many people’s working lives. And I think that that’s where the chat show thing comes through is like: Unless I worked with the New York Times, or I worked with Ira Glass, and I spent $500,000 on this, and I spent three years and it was about a heart-wrenching subject — it’s not a true podcast.
That haughtiness is definitely there, but those are all the people who got laid off. Because those media companies didn’t want to fund these shows that took a lot of time and money and didn’t make a return because they put out six episodes, and then they didn’t build anything. Again, it takes a long time for people to find the show and fall in love with it. So, that’s why I think so many people got laid off. And that’s when everyone said: The podcasting was dead. They meant these big bets on it, these big media bets on it, and instead is like: Ah, well, you stupid chat shows. You just record by yourself, and it doesn’t take any time. It’s like: Well, no, it takes a lot of time. And we’re out here surviving. We’re out here thriving, I have a company that is out here doing it. I just feel like I’ve spent a lot of time in 2023 being like: No, we’re good. We’re hiring, we had more shows. We’re putting out 52 episodes a year. And that shouldn’t be something to be looked down on because I think that’s the basis of the American dream of being a digital media creator.
PM: I think you see even these large companies that got into this podcasting space, doing these expensive of limited series and stuff, are increasingly shifting to what they would consider lower costs, conversational content and stuff like that. And I will just say, anecdotally, on a personal level, we did this Elon Musk series back in October. It was nowhere near the standards or the quality of what one of these media organizations or something would put out —
ES: — I disagree, it was really good, and really well-made. Come on, I disagree. But I see your point; I see your point.
PM: Thank you, thank you. But there wasn’t nearly as much resources to put into it and we couldn’t make custom music or anything like that. But the amount of work that went into just putting that together, it almost crushed me and Eric, because that whole month of October was just a write-off because it was just all the Elon series.
ES: Can I drill down on that for just a moment. What is the thing that took the most amount of time?
PM: The research and the scripting, largely, I would say.
ES: I think that the research totally makes sense. But scripting is just a type of podcasting. It’s just a form, one popularized by very intelligent, but also sometimes can be pretentious and stuffy and a very specific format. But that doesn’t mean it’s better. It just means that it’s the type of thing you want to do to communicate this almost essay, this report. And scripting something is not inherently a better form than the interview form, or the talk about whatever with my friends form. If it’s structured, if it makes sense, if it provides value, and it’s unique and does the thing that the show is supposed to do. A podcast, I think, the best podcast does something that no other podcast, but maybe not even no other piece of media can do. You really have got to find your uniqueness because you’re trying to stand out from the crowd, especially post-2020, when everyone and their mom has a podcast. So, you spent a lot of time trying to make it as high quality as possible. But I don’t think the form of scripting, this type of audio journalist long-form thing is not better. It’s just different.
I think that a lot of people fooled themselves in thinking it was better and then got stuck, only knowing how to make that thing, and then they got laid off. Because, also, when you start working for someone else, the fundamentals of this whole podcast, is when you are just a creative person, you take that job. They will never ever, ever, ever show you the numbers, because they want to do it over in their little office. And they get to tell you that you’re a silly little artist and pat you on the head, that you don’t know what you’re talking about. And then they’re going to make whatever slashes or whatever and try to 10x it, and then when the money becomes regular price again, they’re going to ask for returns and cut all of your jobs. So, I think people are getting really stuck in that thing. If we go all the way back to Gimlet, to This American Life and public radio, it was a nonprofit opportunity that is funded in a very PBS and NPR sort of style. They should exist — it’s very beautiful. Fund it, because it’s important to art. Alex Blumberg, the senior producer was like: Hey, what if we made a private company of this, and that’s where Gimlet began.
It’s interesting to know that his co-founder and the CFO was this guy named Matt Lieber, who was a radio producer, but also was a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, like a really, really big dangerous consulting group. And then they got tons and tons and tons of startup capital through their initial raise, and their Series A. Their series A, they did in December 2015, they raised $6 million dollars on a $30 million valuation, again, after one year of being in business and only making a few shows. So, I want to know, was there ever a plan to make money on their big spreadsheet? Because it seems like they couldn’t figure it out. They’re like: Oh, we’re going to make shows, we’re going to make shows for other companies, and we’re going to sell ads. But we’re not that good at it, and it’s not bringing in enough money. And then they got even more money from their Series B, and then they got bought by Spotify. So, was there ever a profit center in these very big, very expensive types of podcasts? It seems like the answer is no. Now, is that a good reason to make art? No, you don’t have to have a profit center! But if we’re talking about a nascent media industry, yeah, but you kind of have to be able to answer that question. But the tech people are like: Nah, we’ll worry about it later, when someone buys us. The bill was then passed on to Spotify that kept racking up more and more bills.
PM: That’s really interesting, because it suggests that the industry side of podcasting was really built on a false foundation that was supported by the zero interest rates of the past 15 years, and built on that. And the tech industry, of course, absorbed it, and they also didn’t see the need to make a lot of money initially, as they sought to capture this space. Ensure that people weren’t just getting podcasts through their RSS feeds, and their feed apps and all this kind of stuff, but had to go to Spotify, or had to go to Apple, or had to go to YouTube, in order to listen to them. And we see that they have largely failed in doing that. I think for the better, because I don’t think that that would ultimately be a good thing.
We’re also seeing a refocusing from that version of the podcast to something that is much more familiar to what I do, and the people who I know do, where we interview people; we have our conversations; we have some fun. Hopefully, some of us can make enough money to do it as a job, but not everyone can. And I think that also explains some of the shake out too. Is you had a lot of people start podcasts in 2020. Sure, you have on the upper industry side of things, the money equations not working out. But also people who just started podcasts for fun in early 2020. Because they were all in lockdown, and now have gone back to regular jobs or doing other things and just don’t have the time for it anymore. It never really became a job for them.
ES: There really was a speculation boom in 2019, when Gimlet got bought, Multitude was making a show for Sony Music. And it was the only show that Sony Music ever did outside of its internal, because then they ended up just buying studios to be their internal Sony Music podcast. But they contracted the show with us, and we made this budget in late 2018. And we’re like: Oh, I think this makes sense about what we’re doing. And then when Gimlet got bought, we’re like: Dang, our budget is like a third of what everyone else is now charging, because the companies are now going to spend a lot of money on this thing. So, there really was a jump post-2019, and now the large corporate bill is coming due in 2023, which has absolutely nothing to do with all these people thriving, having incredible communities listening to podcats, and making a living based on the ad revenue and the Patreon stuff and touring, and live shows, now. That there is a life to be made. It’s a very great life. It’s a good life, to be a digital media creator. Again, you don’t have to follow the algorithm, you got to do the thing that’s best for your audience and keep trying to grow, which is kind of everything. There’s nothing wrong with that.
PM: Totally. To close off our conversation, we talked about how there has been this real shake out. We’ve talked about how Spotify his big plan has not worked. It’s retrenched, it’s merged some of these companies, got rid of others. Laid a lot of people off because it’s whole strategy that it put all these hundreds of millions of dollars into,wasn’t working. Where do you see this all going in 2024? What is 2024 mean for podcasting?
ES: I think that people are still trying to figure out what to do right now. People are still running around like chickens with their head cut off being like: What do we do? What do we do? Everything’s crumbling around us. And I think that, eventually, people are going to realize the thing that everyone is figuring out in blogging, and in media, like reporters over the last few years. Which is like: We’re going to start our own thing and we’re going to start a Patreon — and hopefully, a competitor to Patreon shows up, so we don’t have to all just use Patreon. Or we’re going to start our own website, like Aftermath and what Defector has done. But what is the podcast equivalent of that? I think people are going to start figuring that thing out, and realizing they can’t just rely on institutions. And also this does intersect with public grant, or art grants, which is something I don’t really understand. But a lot of people get grants to make their long-form reporting thing, and we can’t just rely on that. We got to, unfortunately — for the people who are making capital A art that should be in are supported by others — they got to figure out how to support their own money.
But then what does that look like? I think we’re going to all start turning our eyes towards the things that make sense. And then we’re just going to make a new form. What I hope is that we’re not going to look down on the conversational podcast anymore, and realize how much value is in there. Or we’re all going to go back to this, maybe there’s going to be like an indie filmmaking boom. How can we do the most interesting thing with the least amount of budget? It’s just going to be different rules. I’m not just going to get this six figure salary from a media company, and I’m not going to spend 60 hours making one episode. I got to do something else. I’m telling you, it’s working! I have a job; we have a company; it’s all happening. It’s great. So, I think when people start listening to the ruffians that they kind of didn’t want to listen to before, everyone’s going to be a lot happier. And we can really cut out these massive institutions.
PM: Just to build on what you’re saying, on my end of things not associated with this more industry side of things, I guess, sometimes it’s incredible to me to see how much money it costs to make one of these podcasts. And I’m like: We make this show with so much less than that. And I think I have quite a respectable impact for what it is. And it’s still incredible to me that after almost four years of doing this, so many people listened to the show, so many people like it, so many people support the work that goes into making it. I don’t know just fantastic that it worked out. But Eric, it’s been great to speak to you about the podcast industry, to learn more about how all this works. Thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show.
ES: So happy to be here. I could literally talk about this for another 10 hours, so let’s stop, so that editor Eric has some time to work on it.
PM: Good fun, but thanks again.