Animation: Melanie Lambrick
One Monday this September, a judge in Baltimore reminded earbud-owning citizens that podcasting was once powerful. Her ruling — vacating the conviction of a man accused of murdering his former high-school girlfriend — could be traced directly to the 2014 smash hit Serial, which brought the cold case to increasingly feverish national attention in weekly installments. When the show debuted, podcasting was mostly a digital backwater of chatcasts and recycled radio; suddenly, there was Serial discourse, an SNL skit, and listening parties straight out of the gather-round-the-Victrola era. “It felt genuinely exciting,” said Joy Fowlkes, who was then working as an assistant to a literary agent. “Like I was getting in early on something.”
Podcasting had already been on a slow creep toward relevance, but Serial vaulted the whole thing into the mainstream with 10 million downloads in just seven weeks. The late David Carr’s New York Times column on the phenomenon was headlined “Breakout Podcast Sets Stage for More.” A fertile creative period followed, marked by a succession of buzzy shows — let’s call them “blockbuster” podcasts — that measured up to Hollywood and book publishing in terms of sparking national conversation. Many, like Serial, were ambitious limited-run narrative projects. In Missing Richard Simmons, a former TV producer with a gift for wry observation searched for the reclusive fitness icon; it was big enough to merit coverage in the Times, with a critic calling it “the latest prestige podcast obsession” and chiding its tactics. The whimsical Mystery Show earned Starlee Kine an appearance on Conan. And in 2017, Serial’s production company released S-Town, an almost anti-commercial literary-nonfiction project about the remarkable life of an unremarkable man. It swiftly became a sensation, something you simply had to listen to out of cultural obligation, and it primed you to wonder which show would manage the feat next.
Honestly? It’s hard to say that any has.
It’s been almost eight years since Serial dropped. An entire industry has roared to life, drawing in Hollywood studios, corporations, celebrities, and billions of dollars. But the blockbuster podcast — a subgenre or prestige tier essential to the medium’s rise as an artistic force — is in a serious funk. Your phone is full of podcasts, I’m sure, and maybe you’ve convinced a friend to add one of your darlings to their queue. But when was the last time a single title was being dissected by everyone you know?
For some in the business, the medium’s diminishing ability to drive such moments poses an existential problem. What does it mean for podcasting as an art form if it rarely inspires widespread critical discussion? “Let me put it this way: The Bear was a hit,” said Fowlkes (now a podcast talent agent with the Gernert Company), referring to the summer’s breakout TV show. “It was in the conversation. Nothing in podcasting right now feels like it ripples outside of the bounds of people who already listen to podcasts.”
Sometimes, the joke you’ve surely heard — that everyone has a podcast now — starts to feel literally true. Apple Podcasts lists 2.5 million shows; Spotify claims twice as many. Data in this field are notoriously spotty, but to place this in context: When Serial premiered, Libsyn, then one of the largest podcast-hosting platforms, supported only around 22,000 shows. Max Linsky, who co-founded Pineapple Street Studios, the shop that made Missing Richard Simmons, believes this exponential growth uniquely disadvantages narrative titles. “With Simmons, I don’t think too many limited-run podcasts launched within that six-week window, if any,” Linsky said. “Now, there’s a new, ambitious one every day. It’s harder to get to a place where lots of people are listening simultaneously.”
The crowded market has made almost everything in the business more difficult. There’s only so much real estate on the Apple Podcasts app, whose charts and editorial pages are some of the few spaces where audiences can reliably discover new shows. That congestion has also widened the gap between incumbents and outsiders. Bigger publishers often have established podcast feeds through which they can advertise new releases; smaller studios typically don’t. Meanwhile, costs are going up for podcast marketing, still a nascent practice, with some publishers now willing to spend six digits to advertise on other podcasts, social media, websites, and even outdoor billboards.
“When we first started in 2018, we could launch a show that didn’t have a big name attached to it and get around 30,000 downloads per episode with some promos on Apple Podcasts, a little press, and word of mouth,” said Shira Atkins of the independent studio Wonder Media Network. “Today, if we don’t put in a significant marketing budget, it’s nearly impossible.” The studio recently released I Was Never There, a narrative podcast that was internally considered a modest hit. It was selected for this year’s Tribeca Festival and cracked the upper echelons of the Apple Podcasts charts. But, Atkins told me, “we’ve only lost money on this show.”
Some studios now orient their businesses around selling film and TV rights to Hollywood, but many creators still rely on advertising, an approach that emphasizes pure volume: more seasons, more episodes, more inventory. Both models are in a losing battle with what are known as “always on” podcasts — the conversation- and interview-based shows that are cheaper to make and become more powerful as the long tail of their back catalogues grows. I Was Never There notched more than 100,000 downloads in its opening weeks. But Call Her Daddy reportedly reaches around 3 million listeners, and Joe Rogan once claimed his celebrity-studded show was doing around 190 million monthly downloads.
“We love publishing limited-run shows,” said Will Pearson, the chief operating officer of iHeartMedia’s podcast network, which has financed small, critically acclaimed narrative projects like Jamie Loftus’s Lolita Podcast and Chris Stedman’s Unread alongside hundreds of chatcasts. “That being said, for the long-term stability of this business, we want to build as wide a roster as we can of shows that can do north of a million downloads a month.”
Executives say these are natural shifts in a maturing business and that they make it possible to lower the risk for any one show. (With ambitious work, that risk isn’t just economic but reputational. The Times was embarrassed when its show Caliphate turned out to be based on the account of a fabulist, and a Reply All series on racial bias at Bon Appétit drew withering attention to some of the podcast’s own blind spots.) Heather Fain, the chief marketing officer at Pushkin Industries, the studio that produces Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, compares the current shape of the podcast industry to book publishing, where she previously worked. “You have the blockbuster level of books: something that comes out, dominates, and becomes the center of the conversation — Where the Crawdads Sing, for example,” said Fain. “But underneath that is a whole other layer of projects that are profitable and have an audience. Maybe not everyone’s heard of them, but they’re still successful.”
That may be. But what happens when podcasting stops producing Crawdads?
Earlier this year, Julie Snyder, the executive editor of Serial Productions, had dinner with Alex Blumberg, the co-founder of Gimlet Media, the once-golden child of the podcast business that was sold to Spotify in 2019. “I was asking him, ‘Is this all going to end up shaking out like radio?’” Snyder told me.
In other words: a media business that mostly revolves around high-profile talking heads. Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern for radio; Joe Rogan, Alex Cooper, and the trio of Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes (who reportedly signed a deal with Amazon worth as much as $80 million) for podcasting. “I do get that the listening audience is now so much bigger in general, and I guess we’re now in a more niche category,” Snyder said. “But we don’t want to be art house, you know?”
Serial Productions is most definitely not art house, but unlike with Serial’s first season and S-Town, the studio’s newer releases don’t feel like instant cultural phenomena. The Trojan Horse Affair, its latest project, got more than 13 million downloads in its first three and a half weeks. S-Town had 40 million in its first month. That’s despite Trojan Horse’s benefiting from the promotional muscle of the Times (which bought Serial Productions in 2020) and having a more conventional hook — an investigation into a major British political scandal. “S-Town didn’t have a big genre push or a big mystery,” said Snyder. “It was pretty arty, and it did really, really well. I do wonder if S-Town came out today, would it perform as well? I don’t really know.”
Some insiders believe there’s probably never going to be another Serial-esque moment again. “The expectation that there should be one dominant podcast that all of us want to tune into is kind of foolish,” said Catherine Saint Louis, the executive editor at Neon Hum Media, the studio behind narrative podcasts Sympathy Pains and Spectacle, among others. “It’s like asking, ‘Why isn’t there appointment TV anymore?’”
The Peak Television analogy is often invoked when executives and producers talk about the teeming podcast market. Consider how Yellowjackets, whose first season’s finale drew around 1.3 million viewers, is thought to be a hit even though it has a significantly smaller audience than, say, Yellowstone, whose season-four finale scored more than 9.3 million viewers. The teenage-cannibal drama is widely considered a success because it reached a critical mass among critics and influencers while serving the business goals of Showtime. Saint Louis argues podcasting doesn’t yet have a social infrastructure — an internally propulsive web of invested audiences, taste-making creators, and press — that’s able to support that kind of nuanced feedback loop in how we talk about successful audio productions.
And not everybody believes virality and blockbuster status are fundamentally important in the first place. “There are many more people listening to all kinds of stuff than there were years ago,” one industry insider said. “They might just not be hanging out at bars with your editors.” That’s probably true. After all, podcast audiences have continued to grow as a whole. But it’s difficult to cement a medium’s sense of identity, culture, and meaning if hardly anybody is talking about the same thing — and that may well have material ramifications for the business in the long run. “Buzz matters,” said Larry Rosin, president of Edison Research, which has studied the podcast space for years. “There are lots of new shows clicking along and doing just fine, sure, but the space needs to have whole new ideas that get people wanting to either go back into podcasting or try it for the first time.”
Some executives argue that podcasting has generated plenty of buzz in recent years; the energy is just coming from chatcasts. The surging popularity of SmartLess, the Arnett-Bateman-Hayes klatch, often comes up as an example with its chummy celebrity interviews routinely making headlines in entertainment trade publications. Some industry insiders I spoke to cited Jamie Lynn Spears’s recent appearance on Call Her Daddy as a breakout moment for the show; others noted that The Joe Rogan Experience is a frequent front of the culture wars. But these examples are rooted in the fungible power of celebrity. Podcasting itself is incidental to these enterprises; the hosts could just as easily move their businesses to other media.
What does it mean if the primary reason a podcast gets any attention these days comes from its ability to drive newsworthy gossip or extend the brand of various A-listers, public personalities, and influencers-in-waiting? It means, as Snyder feared, that podcasting is or will become indistinguishable from corporate radio. Which would be a shame, given that podcasting’s explosive entrance into the mainstream eight years ago was principally defined by the medium’s possibilities as art.
These days, “no one is taking any creative risk,” said Laura Mayer, a veteran podcast executive and producer who’s worked at several large publishers. “We’re seeing plenty of efforts to reverse-engineer what were successes in podcasting, and as a result, we get a lot of watered-down karaoke attempts at what worked out in the past.”
A big part of what makes a medium an art form is the existence of internal trends and movements: Serial’s catalyzing a whole ecosystem of true-crime podcasts, Ira Glass’s inspiring a generation of narrative producers who write and sound a certain way. And what keeps an art form dynamic is constant organic reinvention — that is, a medium’s capacity to cultivate, ingest, and be transformed by new ideas that build on and interrogate what’s come before. Given the industry’s fixation on celebrity casts and habit of outsourcing its true-crime research to Wikipedia, it’s hard to contend that podcasting has done much reinvention of late.
Which is only rational, because the reigning, advertising-driven business model doesn’t incentivize creative gambles. Some hope lies in the subscription model, in which there’s a direct financial incentive to back big swings and experiment with untested talent. A few years ago, a start-up called Luminary tried and largely failed to realize this opportunity; now major publishers including Wondery and Sony Music Entertainment are giving it a shot, attempting to build out subscription services through Apple and Spotify. Audible, Amazon’s audiobooks subsidiary, is partnering with prominent podcast creators. It has recently signed deals with Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, the duo behind Welcome to Night Vale, as well as Prologue Projects, the studio co-founded by Slow Burn’s Leon Neyfakh, to produce original projects. The question is whether Audible — which traditionally behaves more like a retailer than a creative studio — is actually capable of delivering blockbusters. Even the audio works of the nonfiction god Michael Lewis, who signed a multiyear deal with the company in 2018, didn’t whip up much of a frenzy.
Veterans like Serial Productions’ Snyder and Pineapple Street’s Linsky reminded me that podcasting is still quite young. “Five years ago, there simply weren’t that many shows,” said Snyder. “There also weren’t many jobs. And you know, this stuff is really hard to do. We’re all pretty new to it. So, sure, today, the good stuff probably feels fewer and far between because we’re all still getting better at it.” Linsky believes it’s only a matter of time before we see the hits again. “The thing that makes me optimistic is that the more established podcasting becomes as a form, the more young people and people who right now wouldn’t think of themselves as creators of this kind of show will see it as a viable path,” he said. “They’ll have different ideas of how these shows can sound, how they can be made, and what will get people listening.”
Podcasting, though, isn’t lacking in worthy talent right now. Consider The Atlantic’s Floodlines project from 2020, which realized a stunning vision in sound design while relitigating the government’s failures around Hurricane Katrina. Or the experimental metafiction of Sharon Mashihi’s Appearances. Or Jamie Loftus, the most exciting independent creator working in the medium today, with her growing oeuvre of punk-rock curiosities. Talent isn’t the problem. The shifting incentive structure around it is.
Perhaps the days of the blockbuster podcast are gone. Podcasting wouldn’t be unique in this loss — after all, we do live in a post-monoculture era of too much everything. Maybe it’s not so bad to settle for art house: a smaller domain within the industry for fresh ideas, new talent, and actual podcasts as podcasts. There will be plenty to fill your ears. Just don’t expect to hear it at a listening party.
Want more stories like this one? Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the September 26, 2022, issue of New York Magazine.