Listen up: why indie podcasts are in peril

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The British Podcast Awards were different this year. Held in a south London park, they had a boutique festival feel, with wristbands and tokens for drinks, an open-sided tent for the actual awards, and people lounging on blankets in front of the stage. There were also sponsor areas – those small, picket-fenced areas where invitees could drink and mix with brand bigwigs. Awards are expensive to stage, and to give any sort of a professional sheen, money is needed. In 2017, the BPA sponsors included Radioplayer and Whistledown, an independent audio creator. In 2021, the BPA was “powered by Amazon Music”. Spotify, Stitcher, Audible, Acast, Global, BBC Sounds, Podfollow and Sony Music also dipped into their sponsorship pockets. Clearly, podcasting has gone up in the world.

Over the past 18 months, podcasting has hit the corporate big time. Apple, long the most recognisable name in podcasting, its iTunes chart being the public measure of any show’s success, is attempting, clumsily, to move from being a neutral platform that hosts shows into one that makes money from podcasting (by, for example, charging creators for highlighted spots).

More glamorously, Spotify, Amazon Music, Stitcher and Sony Music have all been investing serious money, either by buying up big names, or by investing in creators. Back in May 2020, Spotify struck the first big deal: $100m for Joe Rogan – the biggest podcaster in the world – which brought him exclusively on to its roster; since then, it has made multimillion-dollar agreements with the Obamas, the Sussexes and Kim Kardashian West, whose podcasting skills are far less established.

Amazon Music recently paid a reputed $80m for SmartLess, a chatshow hosted by three well-known Hollywood/TV stars (Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Sean Hayes) which pulls in celebrity interviewees like Gwyneth Paltrow and Ryan Reynolds; it has also bought Wondery, the US true crime podcast giant. Stitcher snapped up the vastly popular WTF with Marc Maron, and, in April this year, bought Roman Mars’s Radiotopia podcast group, which includes indie podcast fave, 99% Invisible. In June, Sony acquired Somethin’ Else, the UK independent audio powerhouse that makes David Tennant’s interview show. Want more? In July, Netflix appointed its first head of podcasts.

Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama recording their podcast of conversations at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey.
Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama recording their podcast of conversations at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey. Photograph: Rob DeMartin/AP

Podcasting, which has been around for about 15 years, is getting its moment in the fiscal sun. We’ve all heard the argument for big money: if cash goes in at the top of a culture, it eventually swirls down and benefits the smaller people. There is some evidence of this. Stitcher brought in indie audio drama writer Lauren Shippen to write Marvels, an adaptation of the popular comic. And only the stony hearted would resent Roman Mars making some dosh – he’s been a podcast champion for years.

Still, Big Money does have a tendency to invest in names it understands (celebrities), or to take smaller ideas, brush them up (add celebrities) and make them commercial. In doing so, it can stomp on cultural ecosystems and creative support networks that have been built up over years. Money skews attention, brings in PR and marketing teams against which smaller shows cannot compete. And money can also just be a bit crass: one newbie podcast drama writer, working for a big company, boasted to other writers that they were the first person ever to have written an audio drama that had been bought by Hollywood in order to make a film version. Perhaps the writer had never heard of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978, Radio 4)?

In this big-pockets, big-boots era, when all the attention goes to celebrity shows, or those with a large marketing spend, how can lo-fi podcasts survive? How can independent podcasts continue to be funded, and be noticed, expand their audience and community? How do they stay creative?

Joe Rogan
Comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan is the world’s biggest podcaster. Photograph: Syfy/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

“Financially, we survive on a mix of grants and ads and crowdfunding,” says Amy Westervelt, whose US company, Critical Frequency, makes podcasts about the climate emergency, including Drilled, which uses a true-crime approach to investigate corporate environmental delinquencies. Westervelt also makes money by making podcasts for brands and other companies: this hasn’t always been easy, partly because, she says, “I’m sadly not very good at doing things just for money”, but also because sometimes her commissioners haven’t fully understood what is needed to make investigative podcasts. She has had to fight for a factchecker, and has been asked to fudge the truth to increase drama. (She thinks this is partly because podcasts can still be regarded as lightweight puffery as opposed to, say, an investigation done by a serious newspaper: which would go some way to explain the New York TimesCaliphate debacle.) On the other hand, some companies have embarked on making their own investigative show only to realise that they don’t have the expertise, and have subcontracted Critical Frequency. “I have the contacts they need,” she says. “I know the right journalists to do the job.”

Investigative journalism is a costly, time-consuming business and it can be hard for independent journalists to pull in the money required. Maeve McClenaghan, who makes the excellent UK investigative podcast The Tip Off, landed some investor money for series two and three, as well as funding through her employer the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. But when that money flow ended, she had to produce the fourth series on a shoestring. She turned back to advertising to get some financial support – but found that the market had changed. For her first series, she had been offered a few good sponsorship options but, four years later, those options were far fewer.

“Acast told me that, with the rise of daily news podcasts from newspapers and magazines, advertisers who want that serious news angle are going to go for them, rather than a smaller show like The Tip Off,” she says.

Westervelt and McClenaghan both acknowledge that they could approach larger podcast production companies for investment. But with investigative shows, you have to have done a lot of unpaid development before you bring it to any other podcast company, otherwise there is no reason for them not to steal the idea and make it themselves.

“You have to make sure you’re a vital component,” says McClenaghan. “Why would they bring me in to make the show, unless I’ve done so much work it can only be me?”

Amy westervelt of the Drilled podcast.
Amy Westervelt of the Drilled podcast.

And, even if you get the deal, you then have to manage expectations (many interesting investigations fizzle out) and navigate intellectual property rights. It’s a lot of work.

Helen Zaltzman, doyenne of indie podcasts, created the immensely successful Answer Me This! in 2007, with Olly Mann (they ended it recently, after the 400th show). As a podcaster since the time the medium emerged, she knows that life has got harder for indie show-makers, mostly because there are so many more podcasts out there.

“No platform or investor has solved the problem of discoverability,” she points out. “Your podcast could be great, but how can you get people to hear it?”

How can any small show make a splash in a world where the news headlines go to podcasts made by ex-presidents and princes? There are podcast newsletters, and reviews, but most audio columns – like mine – only come out once a week.

No wonder independent podcasters stick together. Podcasting, as a young art form, has a supportive community, and audio drama is an area where this particularly thrives. Ella Watts, a podcast producer for the BBC, who likens the ecosystem around audio drama to that around comics, describes the indie audio fiction scene as very close, with creators “exchanging skills, like helping each other edit scripts, or acting in each other’s shows”.

Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann (left) recording their podcast Answer Me This! with Dr Martin Austwick in 2014.
Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann (left) recording their podcast Answer Me This! with Dr Martin Austwick in 2014. Photograph: Teri Pengilley

“It’s a weird little niche…

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