Podcasts Aren't Dead, They're Just Getting Started

A-list celebrities and President Obama have made appearances on podcasts—and yet, most people still don't know what a podcast is.

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Sep 23 2015, 8:00pm

The fourth-annual LA Podfest. Photo by the author

The line in the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills already ran the entire length of the second floor hallway and coiled down the foyer stairs into the lobby. This wasn't a queue of excited fans waiting for a pop-up concert, book signing, or early film screening. These people, all of whom had paid between $30 and $120 to be here, were waiting to watch comedian Doug Benson and his yet-to-be-named guests play movie-centric word games as he recorded another episode of his hit podcast, Doug Loves Movies.

This was the fourth annual LA Podfest, a congregation of podcasters, sponsors, and ardent podcast fans who gather to celebrate and discuss the industry. For the first time this year, the event had a festival-wide sponsor—Audible.com, a subsidiary of Amazon.

As someone who listens to podcasts daily as a zen escape from LA's traffic, I was excited to catch live performances by the people I've listened to year after year—but the cynic in me wondered if the medium sits precariously on a bubble that could burst at any moment. After all, some have argued that podcasting won't survive, since the medium hasn't exactly gone mainstream and no one's making millions on them.

Podcasts have existed in their current form for a little over a decade, starting with small-scale shows and growing to include quite a few breakout stars. What was once a cottage industry is now a full blown Big Business, with major movie studios buying podcast networks and A-List celebrities making appearances on podcasts to promote their new shit, the same way they flood the internet with mandatory Reddit AMAs.

But it wasn't until last year's murder-mystery series, Serial, that the general public figured out what the podcast medium really was. With over 80 million downloads since it launched in November, Serial seemed to signal that the medium had finally arrived. It was as if one day your mom, boss, and middle-aged neighbor came up to you and said, "Hey! Have you ever tried this stuff called 'su-shi?' It's so good! You have to check it out!" People were going nuts—TIME even published the handy "You Asked: What Are Podcasts?" to explain the medium beyond Serial's fame.

After the initial buzz wore off, podcast listenership continued to grow, nearly doubling between 2008 and 2015—but content on the medium still falls short of becoming the stuff of water cooler talk.

"Podcasts are never on unless you're choosing to listen to them." — Justin McElroy

Then, in June of this year, comedian and—for lack of a better comparison—the Oprah of Podcasting, Marc Maron, pulled off the coup of interviewing Obama. If this couldn't legitimize the medium, nothing would. But, as with Serial, Obama's visit to chat with a comedian in his garage didn't seem to pull podcasts into the zeitgeist. Maron, who performed at Podfest over the weekend, told me that "it was an honor to do it—and then you kinda get back to business as usual."

Marc Maron at LA Podfest. Photo by the author

So what's the problem? Public ignorance about what a podcast even is remains one of the challenges—if not the biggest challenge—facing the industry as a whole. As Doug Benson put it, "You type the word 'podcasting' on your computer and a red line goes under it like it's not even a word."

That's not to say the medium isn't growing. The television was invented in 1926 but it took three decades before everyone had one in their living room. Just a decade into its existence, podcasting has already made impressive strides: There are now over 75 million unique monthly podcast listeners, compared to 25 million in 2006, so there's clearly consistent growth happening.

But Maron and others say it's difficult to attract new listeners, since listening to podcasts isn't intuitive. If podcasts are ever going to go the way of television, Maron told me, "one of two things will happen: People will get into the habit [of downloading and listening] or there will finally be a platform that will make it incredibly easy to consume. Fortunately, I'm not the type that has an ego where I'm like, 'I WANT IT TO BE HUGE!' I'm happy at this point in my life to be earning a living in a medium that doesn't require me to be pretty or to have it be based on ratings."

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Justin McElroy, of the weekly comedic advice podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, shared similar concerns. "[Podcasts are] not really being curated for you in any way. I would bet the rate of people that just listen to one or two podcasts is a lot higher than the rate of people that just watch one or two TV shows."

"TV is something you get pretty passively," McElroy continued. "It's on a screen. You walk into someone's house, you see a bug for it at the bottom of the screen while you're watching another show...Podcasts are never on unless you're choosing to listen to them."

Paul F. Tompkins. Photo by the author

Paul F. Tompkins, one of the more prolific performers in the podcast biz, cited this as the reason podcasts will probably never blow up in mainstream media.

"I don't know if podcasts are ever going to ever achieve the same recognition that a hit TV show does, because I think not everybody likes to consume things in that way. It's a medium that requires a little more work," he told me. "TV is very easy. You just sit there and it's audio and video. It's everything you need. But I think the kind of theater of the mind that requires you to focus and pay attention on a voice... You're already asking for one extra step from people."

This could potentially pose problems for the funding of podcasts down the line—something that actually could kill the medium. For now, most larger podcasts on podcast networks use the advertising model: Advertisers like Audible and Squarespace place an order for so many ads over so many months. Smaller podcasts have adopted the paid subscription model, providing some free content to attract new listeners. Others, like the elder podcast statesmen behind Uhh Yeah Dude, which has been ad-free since 2006, have turned to fan donations to keep the lights on.

Did you know our food channel MUNCHIES just started a podcast? Listen here.

Dustin Marshall's network, Feral Audio, tries to be more like a profit-sharing art collective than a business. This self-imposed independence has branded Feral Audio's collection of shows as sort of the quirky misfits of the space. But what they lack in corporate support, they make up for in their talent pool, with flagship podcasts like Community creator Dan Harmon's weekly pseudo-town hall meeting Harmontown, garnering upwards of two million downloads a month, according to Marshall.

"Everybody's trying to monetize this thing, but [Feral Audio is] mainly concerned with maintaining independence. There's 'big podcasting,' but we're more concerned with owning everything because then we don't have to worry about delivering to investors," Marshall told me.

Sure, money and popularity are great. Nobody I talked to wouldn't love to make the next Serial. But it's the intimacy, earnestness, and creative freedom that seems to be the main reason podcasts inspire such passion among both listeners and producers—and that's why they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

"I'm going to do this whether I make money or not," Tompkins said. "I really enjoy the form. I really enjoy the medium and I like that you can do whatever you want. You just have to buy your equipment and put it up."

Thumbnail photo via Flickr user David Martín.

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.

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