When podcasting emerged in the mid-2000s, the discourse surrounding this new media practice framed it as disruptive: a mostly user-generated form that operated outside the existing media industries, threatening mainstream media behemoths. That discourse of disruption continues today, even as podcasting has become increasingly professionalized, dominated by producers affiliated with traditional radio, television, film, and publishing institutions.
One trend signaling the growing professionalization of podcasting is the emergence of podcast networks. Following the broadcasting network model, podcasters have realized they can increase advertising and fundraising, streamline distribution, cut production costs, and attract bigger audiences by forming networks of interconnected podcasts. Examples include: PRX’s Radiotopia, Slate’s Panoply, Maximum Fun, Nerdist, 5by5, Gimlet Media (the subject of StartUp Season 1), American Public Media’s Infinite Guest, and Earwolf (subsidiary of ad-sales network Midroll).
In this promotional video for Radiotopia’s successful 2014 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, 99% Invisible host Roman Mars compares the podcast network to an indie record label. Elsewhere, Mars and PRX CEO Jake Shapiro have noted their network’s similarities to the standard radio station model. Alex Blumberg has said he wants to make Gimlet the “HBO of podcasts.” In the video, Mars also uses film and television industry jargon like “greenlight[ing]” new shows. All of these analogies suggest that, far from disrupting the status quo, podcast networks are replicating well-established media industry institutional structures and economic models.
This consolidation into formalized networks is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has fostered innovative audio content and original “podcast-first” or “podcast-only” programming. No longer is podcasting merely a repository for recycled radio programming or second-rate extensions of existing media properties. On the other, amateur/DIY productions are being crowded out of the space, and disappearing with them are the utopian visions for podcasting as a democratizing force. It may be easy to create a podcast but it’s harder to find an audience; of the nearly 300,000 podcasts on iTunes, 95% have less than 2,000 listeners. Along with its commercialization, much of podcasting’s content today is formulaic and conservative (aesthetically if not also politically), replicating established genres, forms, and conventions. Over the past century, all new mass media have had a tendency to start open and full of revolutionary promise but then, as they gain social acceptance and economic viability, consolidate into increasingly closed systems – what Tim Wu terms “the Cycle.” Podcasting may be becoming yet another case of media history repeating itself.