Dawn Ostroff wants to find more hits. The chief content officer of Spotify is upset that her company isn’t producing enough new popular podcasts, and has been putting pressure on her in-house studios to deliver. I’ve now heard the same message from every corner of the Spotify universe, though no one wanted to talk about it on the record.
It’s hard for new shows to find an audience. Every new show has a smaller audience than its predecessors.
This is not specific to Spotify. Executives at studios large and small echoed the sentiment. While the overall audience for podcasting expands, the audience for individual new shows is shrinking across the board.
None of the 10 most popular podcasts in the U.S. last year debuted in the last couple years, according to Edison Research. They are an average of more than 7 years old, and three of the top five are more than a decade old. (“The Joe Rogan Experience,” “This American Life” and “Stuff You Should Know.”) Only a few podcasts in the top 50 (“SmartLess,” “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” “Frenemies”) are less than two years old. And none of them are in the top 25.
This trend vexes executives and producers across the podcasting industry, who worry they are wasting a lot of money on new shows. Spotify, Amazon, SiriusXM, iHeartMedia and outside investors have plowed billions of dollars into production companies. Spotify has spent more than anyone, paying about $500 million for three studios. Where is all this money going if these companies aren’t producing new hits?
Pretty much everyone agrees on the reason. There are more podcasts than ever before. Spotify hosts more than 3 million podcasts, up from a few hundred thousand just a few years ago. While the vast majority of those new shows are either defunct or have minuscule audiences, there are still way more podcasts than there were just a few years ago.
The number of new podcasts has grown more quickly than the podcast audience, and so the number of listeners per show is going down. The list of shows competing to be that program you try on your weekend walk is longer than the backlog of TV shows you want to watch.
Discovering new shows is harder than ever as a result. We rely on recommendations, algorithms and word of mouth to guide us. While year-end lists of the best podcasts can boost the audience for a show, podcasting platforms need to do a better job of guiding listeners. (Most companies used to rely on Apple for promotion, but that’s trickier now that Apple wants to push shows that participate in its subscription program.)
Fragmentation is happening across media. It’s always easier to find an audience when you are early to a trend (like the internet). It was easier to build a big audience on YouTube five years ago than it is today. That’s why a lot of people flocked to TikTok. Soon enough there will be a new platform of choice.
Podcasts that launched 10 years ago or five years ago have a big advantage over ones that are brand new. They had years to build up an audience, gather word of mouth and appear in search results. While the audience for new shows is smaller, existing hits, like Joe Rogan and “Call Her Daddy,” are adding listeners.
People sometimes compare podcasting to TV in that there are always new shows to try. That is true on the narrative side. But the most popular podcasts aren’t narrative shows, for the most part. They are talk and news programming – known as “always on” shows.
So even though podcasting presents itself as an alternative to radio -- a more modern version of radio — several executives said the industry would need to learn from radio to navigate its new reality.
Companies have to rely on existing hits to launch new shows. Podcast listeners are loyal. They develop attachments to individual stations, shows and hosts. Listening to “The Daily” or Bill Simmons or Alex Cooper is comfort food for a lot of people. They’d rather listen to their take on a subject, even if it isn’t good, than the savvy take of a newcomer. Faced with an onslaught of new podcasts, people are retreating to the familiar. Companies need to use these hits to promote new shows.