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My six-month dive into podcasting’s very chaotic year

My six-month dive into podcasting’s very chaotic year

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Also, YouTube’s podcast plans raise questions.

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Illustration by Kristen Radtke / The Verge; Getty Images

This is Hot PodThe Verge’s newsletter about podcasting and the audio industry. Sign up here for more.

Well, this is a weird email to write — today is technically my last day at Hot Pod. But you’ll still see my byline around from time to time because I’m joining The Verge’s news team in November. Starting next week, the newsletter will entirely be back in the very capable hands of lead Hot Pod reporter Ariel Shapiro. Although I’m sad to leave, I’m also really excited to see her take the reins again and continue to churn out the coverage that Hot Pod is known for. 

It’s probably not a surprise to most of you that I knew very little about podcasts before taking this job back in April — a time that also coincided with some seismic changes in the podcast industry itself. Although my background is in tech reporting, I’m normally known for writing stories like this and stories like this. Weirdly enough, I also covered Spotify’s acquisition of Podsights and Chartable way back in 2019 for Engadget — a story that I have no memory of actually writing. I learned a ton in a short period of time by relying on the work of my Hot Pod predecessors, which include Ariel, Ashley Carman, and Nicholas Quah — as well as the help of my editor, Jake Kastrenakes. But I also relied on the tips and expertise of numerous Hot Pod readers. So thanks for your help over these past several months — as well as trusting me to tell your stories. 

A couple of people at Podcast Movement noted that all of the Hot Pod writers have had very distinct styles. Obviously, we’re all different people — but we all took over during very distinct periods for the industry at large. In my view, Nicholas and Ashley covered the promises and failed hopes of the “golden” era of podcasting and the rush of dumb money that made it possible. For me and Ariel, our challenge seems to be how to document an industry that is in the middle of a contraction — but also figuring out how to survive and reinvent itself. 

During the time I was in charge of Hot Pod, Spotify laid off hundreds and effectively killed its in-house podcast production units, Gimlet and Parcast. It seemed like every entity, from public radio to news publishers, made cuts to their podcast units. Companies folded, and left their creators hanging. The film industry effectively went on hiatus this summer as both the unions for screenwriters and actors went on strike, which, living in Los Angeles, I saw firsthand. The loss of Hollywood ad dollars led to real consequences for public radio — both WNYC’s president LaFontaine Oliver and former Southern California Public Radio chief Herb Scannell cited it as a factor in layoffs. A few celebrities lost podcast deals — but it seems like every day, a new famous person gets a podcast. 

To that end, it’s still a mystery to me why most popular podcasts got that way. I don’t know why Joe Rogan’s weekly drop of three hours of unedited babble is always one of the top podcasts in the country. I don’t know why so many people like Morbid or Alex Cooper. When I look at the top podcast charts, I see a mix of disposable true crime, news podcasts from major media outlets like NPR or The New York Times, and buzzworthy celebrity-led efforts like Strike Force Five or SmartLess or that one hosted by Taylor Swift’s boyfriend and his brother. But while the titles that have wide appeal may be a mystery to me, they clearly resonate with others.

I was heartened to see Heavyweight, a former Gimlet podcast hosted by Jonathan Goldstein and now made by Spotify Studios, do well now that it’s available widely on all players — it currently ranks number 36 on Apple Podcasts. But it was also kind of surprising, given that many interpreted Spotify letting go of Gimlet and Parcast as a sign that narrative podcasts were over. I’m sure Goldstein’s ties to the early days of Gimlet and This American Life no doubt plays a factor in its success. 

But at the end of the day, I do think people still have an appetite for good stories. It’s easy to forget that, I guess, during an age where “everything is content” and virality is the key to survival. The number of views or streams on a video or news article or a post often seems like the only thing that matters. While algorithms can be tweaked — I do think certain concepts are timeless. 

YouTube’s uncertain podcast future

Can audio-only podcasts actually thrive on YouTube? Despite an ongoing effort by YouTube to cater to traditional podcasters this year, the answer to that question is still uncertain — and YouTube’s idiosyncratic approach to ads and RSS remains the big reason why. 

Google sunset Google Podcasts this year and announced plans for those users to migrate to YouTube Music, which will effectively double as both a video platform and a conventional audio podcast player by adding RSS support later this year. Many popular traditional podcasts have already made the transition to YouTube and YouTube Music, with very mixed results. 

Rob Walch, vice president of podcaster relations at Libsyn, told Hot Pod that he viewed a webinar on Thursday that YouTube Music hosted for podcasters. He said that as the webinar progressed, a Slack channel he was a part of for podcasters “filled with expletives.” The overall reaction was very negative.

“No one I talked to is going to recommend [YouTube Music] to podcasters,” said Walch. 

A sizeable dilemma for audio-only podcasts is how YouTube will handle their ads. Neither YouTube nor YouTube Music allows dynamically inserted ad spots. YouTube’s terms of service explicitly state that podcast content can’t contain ad formats that compete with YouTube’s own. Technically, there’s an exception that applies for host-read ads or baked-in ads — podcasters can disclose them by checking the paid promotions box. But even if podcasters are able to keep their original ads, YouTube will still run its own ads against the videos, splitting revenue with the creator, rather than the dynamic ones a podcaster may want served and that would pay out only to themselves.

“Nobody will accept ads on their content that they have no control over,” said Walch. 

It’s not a surprise to many in the podcast industry that “putting your podcasts on YouTube” is harder than it sounds. “It’s always been a little strange to me that people understand that video-only platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok work in fundamentally different ways, and that content between them is not interchangeable, but still expect podcasts to automatically work on YouTube,” noted Bikram Chatterji, CEO of Maximum Fun in an email to Hot Pod. Max Fun has experimented with putting some of its podcasts like FANTI on YouTube but notes that YouTube’s practice of inserting its own ads “could be a problem” for them on YouTube Music. 

There’s a growing sentiment in the podcast world that YouTube’s podcast vision is (perhaps unsurprisingly) designed for video-first content creators.

There’s a growing sentiment in the podcast world that YouTube’s podcast vision is (perhaps unsurprisingly) designed for video-first content creators. The company’s messaging doesn’t jibe with the day-to-day reality of most people who make audio-only podcasts, as well as the numerous hosting, distribution, and monetization services that form the traditional podcast ecosystem in place for decades. Surveys from Edison Research and others that concluded that YouTube was the number one platform for listening to podcasts failed to capture what kind of podcasts those people were listening to.

Hot Pod reached out to a number of different podcasts and podcast networks to see what their plans were for YouTube Music. Some still plan on making their podcasts available on YouTube and YouTube Music, if only for discovery purposes. Others are taking a “wait and see” approach for now. 

“We have asked for more info, and gotten very little so far from our YouTube rep,” wrote The Vergecast’s supervising producer, Liam James, to Hot Pod in a Slack message.

The Vergecast only uses YouTube’s ads for now — but wants to eventually bake ads into its videos. The podcast only started publishing on YouTube in the beginning of the year. “Right now we make peanuts on YouTube. It’s a loss for us overall but we are looking at it as an investment,” wrote James. 

Betches Media plans to put its audio-only podcasts on YouTube Music when it rolls out RSS ingestion. “We see any new distribution platform as an opportunity to reach new audiences, but as YouTube’s strategy becomes clearer, we’ll continue to evaluate and see what is right for Betches and our podcast network,” wrote David Spiegel, chief revenue officer of Betches Media, in an email. Betches currently relies on YouTube to run pre- and mid-roll ads. 

“While YouTube’s decision to not allow podcasters to monetize their ads directly isn’t what we’d prefer, it is not surprising at all, at the end of the day, restricting podcaster’s ability to monetize will affect their interest in promoting the platform,” noted Spiegel. 

But the challenges with YouTube Music and RSS ingestion — as well as YouTube and podcasts more broadly — go beyond just ads. 

“YouTube uses a different language than us,” Bryan Barletta, the founder of podcast research group Sounds Profitable, told Hot Pod

One example: when YouTube talks about podcasts on YouTube, what it’s talking about is a cached video that is audio-first that can have a full video component or static video. And even when YouTube adds RSS support, it won’t work as a traditional podcast player. “They’re pulling from your RSS feed, caching it, so it’s one call from YouTube and that’s it,” said Barletta. 

If a podcaster wants to change the audio after an episode is published, they only need to update the audio file on their hosting platform — which automatically carries over to all podcast players. Except, it turns out, for YouTube. Podcasters will have to manually update the audio on YouTube Studio. 

Listener stats are another issue with YouTube podcasts. In a video titled “Why YouTube Music ingesting podcast RSS feeds could be a huge mess,” Justin Jackson, the co-founder of hosting platform Transistor.fm, highlights some of those problems. Whenever a listener presses play in a podcast player like Spotify or Overcast or Apple Podcasts, it requests the RSS feed from a hosting platform. Hosting platforms, therefore, hold a ton of data on who listeners are and where they’re coming from. But YouTube is doing something very different from other podcast players in that it will literally host the audio — instead of redirecting listeners to the hosting platform. 

This also means hosting platforms won’t be able to access any of a podcast’s YouTube listener stats. While it’s true that you can see listener stats on YouTube Studio, the data offered by hosting platforms is much more detailed. 

“This will make it harder for podcasters to analyze where their listeners are coming from, which episodes are most popular, and how episodes perform over time,” wrote Jackson in an email. 

Lightning Round

Jon Stewart and Apple are reportedly parting ways over creative differences, including the host’s intention to cover topics such as AI and China. I’ll be curious to see what happens with the podcast, considering it performed so much better than the TV show. 

Speaking of former Daily Show hosts, Trevor Noah’s podcast on Spotify is set to launch on November 9. The show, which is hosted and distributed by Megaphone, will be released across podcast platforms as part of Spotify’s shift away from exclusivity.

Audioboom is still making deals, announcing yesterday that it has signed exclusive partnerships with Girls Next Level, The Bulwark Podcast, We’re Here to Help, and Out of the Pods.

On October 26, Serial will debut The Kids of Rutherford County, a new investigative podcast that examines how a juvenile court in Tennessee abused its power. The show was produced in partnership with ProPublica and WPLN Nashville Public Radio, and is hosted by WPLN reporter Meribah Knight.

Suge Knight is making a podcast from prison, and according to TMZ, it’s all about personal beef

Triton released its September podcast ranking, with Dateline NBC ranked number one. Two caveats to the ranking, which is that NPR is excluded temporarily because of a data migration. The second is that it also does not include Spotify podcasts, so Joe Rogan (the real number one) is not on there.

Spotify reports earnings on October 24, and will be followed by Cumulus Media on October 27 and SiriusXM on October 31 (spooky!).

- Ariel