Is the Podcast boom all sound and no substance?

Young man wearing a beige hoodie standing in a city centre square looking up at the lights of the buildings and advertising banners
There are around 29 million active podcasts in circulation. Image: Unsplash | Joshua Earle

Podcasts: the rise

Whilst they date back to the 1980’s in origin, podcasts became a recognised media form in 2004. A podcast is a more personal form of audio media, with episodes either listened to in real-time, or downloaded as a series.

According to Music Oomph, there are currently over 700,000 active podcasts in circulation. This stacks up to more than 29 million podcasts episodes out there for listeners to access.

What is particularly interesting is that 54% of podcast listeners are in the age bracket of 35+. Surely this is what the world of marketing had been waiting for; a form of digital advertising which engages with a mature demographic!

Podcasts quickly became the new way to speak to the world. When commercial broadcasters threw their weight behind the medium, rapid growth was inevitable.

The beauty of a podcast is that they are very cheap to produce. Followers create a community around their favourite ‘podcasters’, with whom they share mutual interests and perspectives.

We reported last week that the Spotify algorithm now includes podcasts, making these easier to search for and download.

For the average person, listening to a podcast is a far easier way of digesting information than sitting down to read a newspaper or report. Podcasts can be based on any topic or subject matter, and created by just about anyone. And therein lies the problem.

Desktop version of discover weekly on Spotify
Spotify’s Discover algorithm has now been updated to include podcasts. Image: Spotify

Podcasts: follow the money

It is all about the money; always. Podcasts proved an efficient way to invest advertising budgets, targeting an engaged and interested audience.

Podcasters tend to run their paid-for content either at the start of their broadcast, or mid-way through. Of course, if you are halfway through listening to an interesting exploration of a subject, you’re far less likely to tune out at that point.

Fire Nation reports that charges for advertising in an established podcast depend on the listener volumes. For an ad that runs prior to the broadcast, you’re looking at about $18 for every 1,000 listeners. Running it mid-way through will cost you about $25 per 1,000 listeners.

When you consider that the top podcasts attract crazy listener numbers and downloads of over 20 million unique users per month, those advertising pennies start to seriously mount up.

Joe Rogan, UFC commentator and Fear Factor presenter fronts a hugely popular podcast (which I happen to listen to myself!). His paycheck? $75,000 per episode.

Joe Rogan sitting at his desk speaking as part of his podcast
Joe Rogan makes $75,000 per podcast episode. Image: Joe Rogan

Podcasts: the downfall

There has been a spate of podcast controversy which really highlights the issues here. We reported recently about the power and responsibility of journalists and, I think, what podcasting lacks is any kind of framework or regulation.

Anybody can say anything they like. If a podcaster with outspoken views gains popularity, is anyone actually fact checking what they say? Is there a danger here of an open-access medium to spread rumour and misinformation throughout the world at the speed of light? Are listeners being fed rubbish for the revenue their volumes bring? You bet they are.

An easy example is Serial. If you’ve not heard of it, Serial is a non-fiction podcast which explores true crime events. There is a lot to be said for this; bringing attention and focus onto terrible crimes which are unsolved and have previously been forgotten.

However, combining educational and accurate material with advertising budgets is a recipe for disaster.

Tanya Horeck, author of Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era, says that, ‘although the interactive nature of digital true crime seems to open up the potential for greater public engagement with legal processes, many series are exercises in listener manipulation. At their best, true-crime podcasts ask us to think critically about crime as a systemic social problem. At their worst, they stir up emotions for the sake of it.’

Episodes of Serial have been downloaded around 3.4 million times each.

Sarah Koenig sitting looking sombre
Sarah Koenig hosts the Serial true crime podcast. Image: Kenneth C. Zirkel | Wikipedia

Listening rights?

Another perfect illustration of the innate problem with podcasts falls in the lap of The Dollop. This is a podcast fronted by comedian Dave Anthony.

It turns out that The Dollop has been committing plagiarism by using content ‘lifted verbatim’ from written works of comic Garth Reynolds. This was the second time a similar accusation had been brought against The Dollop. In 2015 a problem arose when podcast Damn Interesting claimed that Reynolds had copied their work without permission.

This for me is the reason why podcasts are becoming less credible. Presenters have no obligation to have any kind of journalistic experience, credentials or ethics. If the worst happens, and they have said something innately untrue, or copied someone else’s work – they claim ignorance.

I think podcasts are a great way of communicating, and shared experience and values have an important place in the world. However, truth matters above all else, and if podcasts are to remain litigation free, there needs to be a bare minimum standard.

Presenters with millions of listeners have a responsibility to those people to speak freely, openly and honestly – and to tell them the truth.

We don’t need more advertising revenue or marketing funnels in the world of media; what we need is more accountability.

Which is your favourite podcast? Why do you listen, and what do you gain from it? Do you agree that some form of regulation would improve the medium for the better? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

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