What will the future of podcasts look like?

My new favorite podcast host? My boss.
My new favorite podcast host? My boss.
Image: Reuters/Ammar Awad
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Listen to the eighth episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast season 3 for everything you need to know about podcasts

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Kira Bindrim: If you’re listening to this podcast, here’s what I know about you. I know there’s a 50% chance that you’re in the United States, and 6% chance you’re in Sweden. You’re probably listening through Apple Podcasts, although a lot of you also use Spotify. And if history is any indication, almost all of you are going to make it through this entire episode, which I appreciate.

Now here’s what I don’t know. I don’t know how you found the Quartz Obsession podcast, or anything about your demographics, like gender, race, or age. I don’t know if you listen to other podcasts, and if so which ones. I have no idea what time of day you listen, or whether you pair the Quartz Obsession with walking, driving, or cleaning your kitchen.

See, these days, there are more than 800,000 active podcasts, and making a new one is as simple as buying the right equipment and finding a quiet space to record. But that’s where the simplicity ends. As podcasting becomes a big business, the industry now has decisions to make—about how much data it collects from listeners, how important hosts are to the experience, and who will have the resources to survive. In other words, to make podcasting profitable, we might have to kill some of what makes it great.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: podcasts, a bubble we can make at home.

I am joined now by Ana Campoy, who is a finance and economics editor here at Quartz ,based in Texas. Thank you for joining me for the most meta episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast yet, Ana—a podcast about podcasts.

Ana Campoy: Thank you for having me.

Kira Bindrim: So it strikes me that you and I are recording this in what might be considered a boom in podcasts, or fairly, I guess, is considered a boom in podcasting. So I thought it might be smart to remind people how recently that’s been the case, how recently podcasting wasn’t this giant phenomenon, or even hugely popular. When did podcasting start, and who started it?

When did podcasting become so popular?

Ana Campoy: So podcasting started in the early 2000s. At that time, it didn’t have a name. But people were dabbling with audio on the internet. And Adam Curry, who was an MTV host, is credited with being the Podfather, because he figured out how to get some of that audio to more people and make it more accessible. Ultimately, the beginning of podcasting is in 2005, when Steve Jobs created that directory.

[Steve Jobs: And what is podcasting? What podcasting is, is that you can not only download radio shows and listen to them, you can subscribe to them.]

Ana Campoy: So essentially, the way podcasts were distributed and are still distributed is through the RSS feed, which is just a channel for creators to send out their content to the world. So it’s always been based on that. Before, it was very all over the place. And in fact, people didn’t even call it podcasting.

[Steve Jobs: Another way it’s been described is Wayne’s World for radio, which means that anyone without much capital investment can make a podcast, put it on a server and get a worldwide audience for their radio show. And that’s true, too...]

Well, since there were a bunch of different people doing podcasts, I don’t think that there was a generalized culture. I think, to the extent that there was a culture, I think people saw themselves as radio pirates, or as people who were breaking down all the barriers and just communicating with people, you know, with ultimate freedom. I think that that was kind of the vibe.

Kira Bindrim: One of the things I find interesting about podcasting, and one of the things that seems like a through line from the period you’re talking about today is how low the barrier to entry is relative to a lot of other mediums. You can basically fire one up in your garage if you are so inclined. What are the limitations or were the limitations of that early era of podcasting, where it was just those really foundational days?

Ana Campoy: I mean, in terms of producing a podcast, there were none. I mean, you just needed to record. I mean, you had to be a little bit tech-savvy to be able to put it up online. But yeah, it wasn’t that hard.

Kira Bindrim: What do we know in that time? Like I was talking earlier, and I want to come back to, we don’t know a ton about listeners today. I have to imagine at that point, it was even less. You sort of put it out in the universe, and then good luck.

Ana Campoy: Oh, yeah. I mean, the only thing that you might have known is that somebody downloaded it. I mean, it’s always been the case that you can get the IP address. But yeah, I think in the early days, you just kind of put it out there and hope you have some listeners. And I guess you got feedback too from people who listened to you, not by, you know, extracting data from them, but maybe people were talking about a podcast, you know, you heard comments about it elsewhere.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, so we have all these weirdos making podcasts, no centralized platform. Then we have a centralized platform, now everybody can find the podcasts in one place. What would you say was podcasting’s big breakout moment, to the extent that it happened?

Why the Serial podcast went viral

Ana Campoy: A lot of people say podcasting’s breakout moment was when Serial came out.

Kira Bindrim: Which was, what year was that?

Ana Campoy: It was in 2014. So Serial was a true crime podcast. And it was done by someone who kind of grew up in This American Life, so it was someone who understood audio. And through this podcast, they cracked the code—they kind of figured out how to make the perfect kind of content for this medium. By that time, people had been playing around with podcasts for a long time and had really mastered the medium, I think, and really figured out what works in podcasts. And so it was content designed for being a podcast, and it was brilliant at that. The other thing is that, at that point too, smartphones were a lot more popular. And so I believe about half of Americans at that point said that they had a smartphone. And so the audience has also expanded because before you had to have an iPod, or you had to have one of these other devices, a Microsoft Zune, there were tons of them. And you had to download it on your computer and then transfer it to your device. So with smartphones, it’s just easy, you know. You can just play it there.

Kira Bindrim: So you could port it over the sort of water cooler conversation that happens around television shows, but now it’s about a new episode of a true crime podcast, is how I experienced Serial.

Ana Campoy: Did you listen to it?

Kira Bindrim: Yes, through sheer peer pressure. And I think it was maybe the first podcast I listened to because it just wasn’t a medium—like, I’m not a talk radio person, it just wasn’t a medium that had really appealed to me. But let me tell you, if everybody’s talking about something, I will jump on it. I’m basic like that. So I did listen. Do you think there’s an argument to be made that podcasting, as big as it is today, would not have happened without Apple? Because it sounds like both the iPod and the iPhone, which was sort of the definitive smartphone, were huge in making podcasting something that people would not necessarily do, but listen to, opening up a listener base?

The evolution of podcasting

Ana Campoy: Yeah, Apple definitely played a huge role. And I would argue, more so because of iTunes, which was a place where you could go listen to the podcasts. Because before, it was kind of, you know, this whole universe of places where you might be able to run into a podcast, there was no centralized location where you could go find one. You know, by opening up this directory, Apple created a space. And importantly, I think that what really shaped the podcast industry is that Apple created the space, but they were super hands-off. They were not picking winners and losers, or, you know, creating rules of which ones go on top, because at that point, what they wanted to sell was devices.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, I want to come back to Apple because, as we get through this evolution of podcasts, I feel like there’s a Spotify story, then it’s interesting that we’ll have this big transition. But I’m curious if the rise of podcasting—you know, I’m in the US, you’re in the US, is it as much a global phenomenon as I think we could argue it is within the US?

Ana Campoy: I mean, obviously, there are podcasts everywhere. I think the roots of podcasting are in the US and the people dabbling in podcasts and kind of creating this industry are mostly in the US, and people elsewhere are catching up.

Kira Bindrim: Are there different challenges, I have to imagine in different places? Like the US has a radio tradition, to be sure, but not like the UK. I wonder if in places where radio itself is more entrenched, this shift to podcasts would be harder, or take longer?

Ana Campoy: You know, I’m not really sure. It’s such a different thing. I don’t know if it’s an evolution of radio. It’s almost like an evolution of blogs.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, yeah, let’s talk about that. Because I do think, when people talk about podcasting, it’s sort of it’s like radio for the internet age, and there is this through line—obviously, it’s audio. You don’t think that’s the best parallel, industry-wise?

Ana Campoy: No, mainly because podcasting began as a very indie thing. People were looking at it as, like, turning their back on radio, because there were so many rules for radio—on what you could say, and there were so many ads, and there were so many gatekeepers—that people saw podcasting as liberating themselves from all of that. In fact, I actually have this quote from Adam Curry that I thought was like a cool summary of what people were thinking in those days. He said, and this was in a podcast that he had, and this podcast was played when Steve Jobs introduced this new directory. Like he just said, ‘Oh, let’s play a podcast,’ and it happened to be that one, probably by choice. But Adam Curry said:

[Adam Curry: Something remarkable is happening here. Radio is springing free of the regulated gatekeepers who’ve managed what you can hear since radio was invented. It’s jumping into the hands of anyone at all, with something or nothing to say.]

I mean, when you think of established media, that’s never been the purpose, you know, like a pure form of expression.

Kira Bindrim: I think when there’s a big rush of interest in a new medium like podcasting, there’s usually also a big rush of money and attention. And we’ve definitely seen that in podcasting, and in digital video, and in a lot of places internet-related. But that can also mask some of the challenges that come with something suddenly getting a lot of attention. Is it easier or harder to make a successful podcast today than it was even five years ago?

Ana Campoy: I would say it’s a lot harder, because now you have tons and tons of competition. Now there’s more gatekeeping. Now Apple does choose which podcasts it’s going to shine a light on. And so if you’re not one of those podcasts, who’s going to hear you? How are you going to be found? And so I think it’s harder

Kira Bindrim: After the break: what it takes to have a hit podcast now.

[ad break]

Kira Bindrim: I want to talk a little bit about the data element that I touched on in the very beginning.  Because it’s interesting that podcasting has become so huge almost the same decade-long period, or 20 years, that the big tech companies have—Google and Facebook and companies that really make their money off of knowing everything about what you’re doing. I think a lot of us assume now that everything we do online, or even adjacent to online, is being tracked in some way. Has that data challenge gotten better? Do we know more now than we used to? Are there still limitations for podcasters who are trying to understand who is listening to them and how?

What are the challenges of building a successful podcast?

Ana Campoy: It’s definitely gotten better. I mean, you don’t get that much more information from the actual download of a podcast. But now you have all these companies that are kind of cross-referencing information and taking third-party data from elsewhere and stitching everything together to give you a picture of who’s listening, when, how. You also have the companies where people listen to the podcasts, like Spotify and Apple—they’re also starting to offer some data. For example, how long someone stayed with an episode. So essentially, you can extract a lot more data, but you’re gonna have to pay for a bunch of different services that are going to give you little pieces of the picture. And then you have to put it all together.

Kira Bindrim: Anyone, if you’re listening, and you want to give me your demographic information, just send it to kira@qz.com Give me everything about you. When you listen, what you do while you listen, I’m interested in all of it. In verse form, in a regular email, whatever you want. Okay, if I am someone who listens to podcasts, and I have listened to podcasts over the last 10 years, when I’m looking at what’s out there, what is different now, other than just more podcasts, than was true 10 years ago? What are some of the trends in podcasts that are suggestive of how this industry is evolving?

Ana Campoy: So, one difference might be how you find your podcasts. So there’s some curation going on in the places where you might go listen to a podcast, and so you might listen to something you see on top, because it’s on top. I mean, it’s kind of like a Google search. I mean, there’s still all kinds of podcasts out there, even some that don’t have the best production value. But chances are, you might be listening to a podcast that was put together with some thought in it, and in a studio, like where we are. And you’re probably listening to higher-quality podcasts. Behind the scenes, you might have a company that hosts the podcast. You’re gonna have companies that are analyzing some of the data that you can get from the podcast. So there’s stuff that’s happening behind the scenes. And there’s also tech, you know—before, the ads were read as part of the script. And they were there forever—baked-in, they’re called. And now you have ads being inserted when you download the podcast. Depending on what information exists about you, they’re gonna place an ad of a product you’re more likely to buy. And then if you listen to the podcast three days from now, it’s going to be a different ad. So that’s very different.

Kira Bindrim: One thing I want to add is I feel like every celebrity in the world has a podcast and so many of the top podcasts are just celebrities chit chatting with each other. Do you feel like that’s something you’ve observed also?

Ana Campoy: Yes, yes, that’s definitely the case. And this is happening—I mean, Spotify is hiring some of these celebrities to do this. And you know, it’s pretty obvious why they’re doing it is: because these people come with a huge audience.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah. Let’s talk about where Spotify fits into all of this. When I think of the role Spotify has played in the evolution of the music industry, for example, there’s sort of this love-hate-love-hate-hate relationship, where, on the one hand, Spotify helped us come out of that ripping-music-off-the-internet era into a place where people feel normal about paying for music in some way. But it also normalized a much lower rate of pay for artists, and that’s something that we’re contending with. Is that similar for podcasting? What is Spotify’s role in the podcasting world?

Ana Campoy: No, because the whole model is different for music than for podcasts. The music model is based on royalties, and you don’t get any royalties when your podcast is on Spotify. Do you?

Kira Bindrim: If I do, Ana, no one’s given them to me. So I’ll have to look into that.

What is Spotify’s role in the podcasting world?

Ana Campoy: Yeah. So believe it or not, Spotify doesn’t make a lot of money off music. And so podcasting emerged as a way for them to make money, because they don’t have to pay royalties. And so at the beginning the name of the game was get as much content in there so that people can go to Spotify to listen to podcasts. And now they’ve essentially expanded into all aspects of podcasting. So they started buying production companies, really successful companies that put out podcasts. And then, you know, they started hiring celebrities to do podcasts. And now they’re buying podcast analytics companies. And so they want to become this place where you can get everything—as a producer, as a listener, as an advertiser, you just go there and get everything you need.

Kira Bindrim: What does that do for the landscape of podcasting writ large? Does that change the nature of competition? Is there a negative to it?

Ana Campoy: I think that people in the beginning were very afraid, because they thought it was gonna be a Facebook or something like that, like a walled garden where they become the intermediary. I mean, part of the allure of podcasting for everyone involved was the sense—it wasn’t just a sense, it was an actual connection between the podcaster and the audience that had no one in between. I mean, it was just direct. It was kind of like with the internet, right? You had a blog, and people just went to your blog, and they got everything directly from you. And then you had other people come in between, like Google or Facebook. And then people went to those places to find content, and Google and Facebook may have not necessarily picked your blog to put up top. And so people thought that Spotify was gonna be the same.

But it’s not clear that that’s what’s going to happen. Because all these things that, you know, in the beginning, Spotify did have the idea of having some exclusive podcasts. And those were going to be only on Spotify, and then we’re gonna have, the ad part was going to be very similar to what you get on the internet, because Spotify already has a lot of information about you. So it looked like it was built something very similar to a Facebook, but now it’s buying these analytics companies, but you can use them even if you don’t, you know, if Spotify is not the place where people go to listen to your podcast. So what I’m starting to hear now a little bit is, some people are actually happy that Spotify is buying these companies because they’re gonna put more money into figuring out the data piece. And now, when you buy two or three companies, maybe those services are going to all come together. And as a podcast producer, you’re not going to have to go to four or five places to get your information. So I think it’s pretty much up in the air how this all is going to end up looking,

Kira Bindrim: What is evolving in how podcasts make money? Because at the very beginning we were talking about profitability. And no matter how beloved an industry is from an artistic or editorial perspective, at the end of the day, it has to pay its bills. Historically, as you mentioned, host-read ads were this sort of darling, this unique format that didn’t really exist anywhere else. And that attracted part of a lot of attention. And I imagine some sort of premium ad dollar-wise. What is changing and how podcasts make money?

How do podcasts make money?

Ana Campoy: So I mean, it’s pretty surprising. The latest data that we have shows that around half of ads are still host-read, which, that is crazy, especially when you look at the rest of the advertising landscape. And this is happening, even as the industry is moving away from baked-in ads. So that’s kind of like the most, that was the traditional way of making money in podcasts. Now, in addition to that, you have just regular ads that are inserted, and advertisers being able to get more data in order to target the people that they want. So that’s big. You also have other models—people experimenting with charging a fee for people to subscribe to a podcast, or you have Patreon, where creators get funding from fans. And then you also have people selling the IP of their content so that maybe later it can become a TV show or a movie. So there’s different ways of making money. And we’re still seeing how all that works out.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah. So if I tie all that together, we’re entering a place where having a bigger audience is, of course, great—any advertiser is going to want you to have a large audience. Being able to know a lot about that audience is going to be increasingly important to advertisers—the more data we have, the more they’re going to want it. Being able to then automate or target advertising in some sort of way based on data would logically then become important. Offering subscriptions, which means you have enough podcasts, or your podcasts are compelling enough that people would pay for them, is one option. And then producing enough podcasts that people are going to buy them to turn them into TV shows or movies is an option. All of which sound like great options, all of which options sound a lot more feasible if you’re Spotify, or if you’re a giant company that can invest in data, and invest in having a big enough catalog to do all of these other things. So I kind of want to throw it at you again: Do you think we could reach a place where the person who is starting a podcast in the garage, the person in 2000, actually doesn’t have much of a chance because the economics of this industry have changed so drastically, so quickly?

Ana Campoy: Yes, definitely. I mean, I think what you’re going to see is more and more of podcasting being dominated by these huge players. At the same time, you have a huge TikTok star who’s just like a random person and for some reason, people just gravitate towards that person, and then suddenly that person is a big star. I mean, I think that the same thing can still happen with podcasts. The chances of that happening are very slim, but everyone still has the ability to put their stuff out there. And if they have the luck of being discovered, then maybe the next year Spotify is going to sign a deal with them.

Kira Bindrim: So the ceiling is potentially a lot higher, or at least isn’t any lower, but getting to the first floor more difficult than it used to be. I want to take a few steps back and kind of cast our eyes down the road and think about the future of podcasting as an industry, versus just the future of individual podcasts. Do you think we are in a podcast bubble? Like do you think there will be some sort of right-sizing of the industry at some point?

The future of the podcast industry

Ana Campoy: I don’t think so. I mean, it’s really hard to imagine the podcast bubble popping. It’s growing really fast. Advertising is growing. People continue to be interested. So I don’t think that there’s a bubble. I think that what you’ll see happen is it’ll become more like a regular industry with big players and less niche and quirky. But I don’t think it’s going away, or even shrinking.

Kira Bindrim: It’s an evolving industry, but not an immature one.

Ana Campoy: It’s a maturing industry.

Kira Bindrim: Do you think podcasting is a unique story? Or do you see it as sort of the latest chapter in the development of media, as it were, where there is this precedent—something starts small, or it’s crafted by smaller outfits and artists, then it gets popular, and then scaling requires centralization, and then centralization requires big companies and so forth. Is it just the latest chapter in that saga, or is there something unique about the podcasting story?

Ana Campoy: I mean, I am no expert in every kind of media industry and its trajectory. What feels special about podcasting is that it was doing its own thing in a corner for a really long time, compared to the internet. And so, I think that, as a culture, it values that quirkiness and weirdness more than we see in the internet, for example. And so I think that gives it a chance of not following exactly in the same steps. So, yes, we might have really big players, but we’re still going to have smaller, independent makers. So when I think about the lessons of podcasting, that’s one thing. That’s worth money, that feeling that you’re in a weird, quirky place where people are speaking authentically to you, and it’s original. It didn’t start out as a way to make money, but people like that, especially right now, when we have so many things that are just vying for our attention. What comes out when you have the space for freedom and experimentation and fun, is awesome. And so we should think about how we can create more of those places where you also get a lot of different people participating, a lot of diverse voices,. It just makes for better content.

Kira Bindrim: I have to imagine there are a lot of listeners who have thought to themselves at one time or another, ‘Maybe I should start a podcast.’ Given everything we’ve talked about here, what would you recommend? Would you say yes or no? Any tips?

Ana Campoy: Well, I would say Google first, your podcast idea. And chances are, somebody already is making a podcast based off a very similar idea. So that’s one. The other thing is, when we listen to podcasts, and they sound so cool, and it’s a great experience, in order to recreate that, you need a lot of time, you need a lot of resources. A podcast recorded in your garage old-school is not going to sound probably like your favorite podcast. You’re going to need a good mic, you’re going to need someone who knows about recording. And so it’s very hard to create a podcast that sounds like what you’re used to listening to.

Kira Bindrim: Go for it, but manage your expectations, it sounds like.

Ana Campoy: Yeah, or you might just wing it, and then end up creating this super popular thing.

Kira Bindrim: You never know.

Ana Campoy: You never know.

Kira Bindrim: Thank you, Ana, this was fascinating.

Ana Campoy: You’re welcome.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Ana Campoy in Texas.

If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Say that in a sea of available podcasts, you’ve found a new favorite. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.