Tech advancements leading to podcasts being everywhere. What happened?
There was a time when podcasts were an obscure form of entertainment. After all, in the early days of the internet, storage space for mobile devices was precious.
The Before Times
Podcasts used to be pretty rare, back when CDs were the main method of data storage. You could get okay-ish radio recordings of professionals who had advice to dispense on a CD, or you could listen to an entire album instead on that same CD.
Podcasts as a format just didn’t make sense. It’s like a radio show, but never aired live? It’s like a TV talk show, but with no footage? It’s… sort of like an audio book… but without premade content. What is it bringing to the table that’s new, exactly? The podcast’s first form was as audio-blogs, and audio blogs existed, but the people making them had to be pretty darn interesting to compete with the other entertainment available.
Especially with what a hassle it was to even get the things and store them!
It took til downloadable files could be accessed by anyone for podcasts to start growing in popularity, in the 2000’s. In the peak era of talk shows, sitting down to watch an interview was more convenient, and easier to parse. The format was tried and true! The interviewees were always interesting, and always previously vetted. Recording those off of TV could be like a podcast, but recording it from there meant recording the entire thing, not just the audio, so stripping the video just didn’t make sense if it was all already there. Format transfers were a pain for the average person with an average desktop.
Speaking of average desktops, recording equipment and studio space were also prohibitively expensive. If someone in 2004 wanted to record something, they’d have to either go to a specialty shop or settle for consumer grade microphones from Best Buy. The recording space, unless they were lucky, wasn’t soundproofed. Echoes, interruptions, editing, distributing – this is all studio-level stuff at that point in time, and studios just weren’t interested. Talk shows were live, on the radio, and sometimes available for download on the radio’s website if the radio’s host company wanted to go through the effort. That was a very powerful if. As a result, the best of the best is what most people got, classic Abbott and Costello bits and tips from self-help guides who were actually professionally trained and licensed to help people. Even then, those aren’t really like podcasts because they weren’t episodic or predictable.
Now that high-quality microphones are cheaper than they used to be, and many people have the internet speeds necessary to upload hour-long segments, nearly anybody can start a podcast. Audacity, a sound-editing program, is free to download! A decent-quality mic with a pop filter no longer costs as much as a gaming console. Of course people are going to try and get into the business.
The problems begin to arise when things like soundproofing or room noise or echo aren’t considered. Inexperienced beginners set out in echo-y rooms with audible distractions popping in every now and again. If they have the right set-up and a quiet place, they still have to jump the hurdles of adjusting their own mix, making an intro or scripting one, cutting out dead space and breathing noises, editing the final file, and finally, uploading it. It sounds so simple to just ‘make a podcast’ when there’s a ton of work hidden behind it.
Not to mention the marketing and ads, which is why so many people try to jump into podcasts in the first place. Many people misinterpret ‘audio-only’ as ‘easy-money’ but it’s really not. The effort to produce something as cleanly made as any of the top podcasts on Spotify is a full-time job in and of itself – and with so many new podcasts, content consumers aren’t going to settle for poor-quality ones anymore. This is bad news for hopefuls aiming at ad money!
Ad-reads took over Youtube after what is termed the ‘adpocalypse’. Essentially, Youtubers with good records and decent subscriber counts could be solicited to read an ad directly within the video, bypassing the Google Ads system altogether, as the Ads system was much less profitable once advertisers pulled away en masse. The format, however, was tried and true long before in early podcast break-ins. Many podcasts from the 2010’s contained ad reads as their standard, the same way radio shows did.
Ad-reads are a very good source of money. Incredibly good. Unlike Google Ads, the ads can never be pulled from the video or audio, which is good for the creator. The ad is also always tied to the content, unlike Google’s rotating reel of pre-roll ads, which is good for the advertiser! The ad’s perpetually advertising for them, even if relationships with the creator crumble. They’re worth more money because of this stability, and as a result, they’re more difficult to attain than the standard Youtube Partnership.
The bigger the podcast, the more likely it is to be approached by an advertiser, and the more potential money one could earn. Unfortunately, because so many podcasts are so opaque about their total listener counts, it’s much harder to gauge how big a channel needs to get before they can start pitching their show to the advertisers. There’s also a sort of wariness around new and upcoming shows because followers and download counts can be purchased from shady folks who specialize in bot-action. 5,000 subscribers might not be 5,000 sets of ears ready for advertisement – the efforts to cheat the system have made the system more wary, and made the bar higher for new entrants along the way.
Of course, the only consistent way to get those necessary followers is to produce consistently good content on a schedule. Not every podcast that does that succeeds, but all of the successful podcasts do that. One good episode? Easy! Two good episodes? Maybe! Three, or four, and then five when you really don’t feel like recording? Episode 6, when you’ve gotten a total of three listeners? It’s tough to find the motivation to continue. The NY Times says that between March and May of last year, only a fifth of existing podcasts released a new episode. That’s abysmal.
The question is if they can keep it going in spite of the work, or in spite of a rocky start, and many just can’t. It’s easy to talk with friends for an hour, for some people. It may be easy to spend an entire night together gabbing about whatever the current events are. It’s not easy to guide the conversation using pre-written topics, day after day, week after week. How often did you spend two solid hours just talking to people before the pandemic struck? No breaks. Very little dead space.
I would wager most people overestimate the time they can talk about something before repeating themselves, which is why so many podcasts also feature friends and interviews, a niche that’s become overdone. Having another person to bounce info off of is a great idea, but so many podcasters treat interviews as a marketing method instead of an actual interview that sorting out interesting interviews is like finding a needle in a haystack.
And then there’s the ‘friend group’ podcasts, which have the same core members, week after week. Every issue with scheduling recording time, having a quiet studio, and finding relatable talking points is magnified. That being said, they are much easier to run (and more appealing to listeners) than single-person podcasts, or rotating interview podcasts if the host is mediocre. Most radio shows have two or three people for that exact reason. Even then, running out of content is still a very real threat, and if one of the members leave? The show is as good as over.
Shows like My Brother, My Brother, and Me rely on Yahoo Answers as well as audience send-ins to build out content. Beach Too Sandy, Water Too Wet does the same, but with reviews of various locations. Other podcasts with similar formats have all but consumed the niche, and now others trying to get their own podcast off the ground are having to do “X – But With a Twist!” style content. The number of dead shows with premises like the Youtuber Mark Fischbach’s Distractable podcast, or the Joe Rogan Experience, is in the hundreds, because it’s so incredibly easy to make one episode and then bail. People starting podcasts now might only be able to get a reliable viewer base if they have their own built in off of other projects. Distractables, Very Really Good, Schmanners, etc. all come from people who have successful channels somewhere else.