What If This Is All The Love Podcasting Ever Gets

you'd do a couple things differently, I'd bet

On March 11, my colleagues at Edison Research and I will release the Infinite Dial 2021 study with our partners at Triton Digital. This is the 24th year we have produced this report, which is the longest-running study of consumer media usage in America. I was just a boy when it started. I am often asked by journalists and people in the VC/investment community to speculate or forecast on where certain numbers might be in a year, or three years. I never do this. It’s my job to be a reliable discerner of the present day, and making a “prediction” about next year runs counter to that charter. You don’t want the people providing you with a number to have a vested interest in predicting that number.

I don’t know if the podcasting numbers, for instance, are going to go up or not for 2021. We are still in the field, and I haven’t seen preliminary data yet (and even if I had, that data would still need to be weighted and go through our rigorous quality control procedures before I would even hazard an estimate.) I do know that every year that we have produced our nationally-representative estimate of podcast consumption, those numbers have gone up, and the reveal of those numbers has been treated as something of a celebration by so many people involved in the space. Indeed, back when there were “places,” and even “offices,” people used to gather in conference rooms for Infinite Dial watch parties. And we are going to have some surprises this year to keep those traditions alive. We see you!

But more than anything, our primary job is to get the numbers right, and those numbers have been on an uninterrupted climb since 2005. But this will not always be the case.

So, lets engage in a little thought experiment. I don’t have the answers here, but I do know that the time to start asking the questions is before you need to. Here is what I do know:

I don’t think podcasting is done growing. Really. But what if it took a pause? Or even more dramatically, what if this is all the love podcasting ever gets?

You’d do a couple things differently, I would bet.

It is in those moments when creativity comes to the fore, and innovation gets rewarded. We are all riding a bit of a wave right now when it comes to podcasting, but every swell has its ebb, and it is in those ebbs that doubling down on differentiation ensures your show will bob back up to the surface. Here is what I do know: if the medium stops growing, then the kind of returns expected by people who have invested at multiples of revenue are in jeopardy. The space becomes less attractive, and the industry moves from “star” to “cash cow,” to use the BCG terminology I learned in B-School.

When you can no longer count on inertia to lift all boats, you have to be differently better at serving a specific audience than other shows in your space. And I think that takes being honest about what it is you are doing, how relentless you are about improving it, and doing the things now to prepare for the day when podcasting’s growth slows.

Podcasting isn’t a “product,” like Bud Light. It doesn’t take share from other light beers. It doesn’t take share from other beverages, even. It takes time from your day that you can devote to lean forward and listen to something that isn’t your job or family. So far, though I’ve been Manifesting the crap out of The Secret, the universe has not provided me with another hour per day for podcasts, or that hovercraft I wanted. The time I spend with podcasts is time I am not watching videos, or writing this newsletter, or talking with my wife, or doing my job. It’s hard to earn that time—it’s hard to even find that time—so when I do devote that time to a podcast, it has a high bar to clear. It has to delight me.

Does your podcast delight a listener? How do you know? If you ran a bakery, you would first take stock of your baking skills. Are you, in fact, a great baker? If not, then that’s the first thing to fix. But if you are, then you would take a look at the other bakeries in town—what do they do well? What is their “unassailable moat?” What are their deficiencies? To discover all of this, the first step is to know all the other bakeries in town, of course. But the most important step is to understand the tastes of consumers, and how they change over time. This is why Coke and Pepsi today own so many water and sports drink companies, and why we have Bud Light Limearita [tear slides slowly down my cheek.]

Most of all, what I implore you to do is to seek mastery. Not in marketing or promoting your podcast. But mastery in your field—the thing you podcast about. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks dipping in and out of Clubhouse (as I have written about here) and of all the things I see there that give me pause, nothing troubles me more than the amount of time I see people spending in rooms that purport to help them grow their podcasts that talk about everything but mastery of your field. Take the hour you might have spent in that Clubhouse room on promoting your beekeeping podcast, and use it to master the craft of beekeeping. You don’t deserve an audience, and when the spigot of continual podcast growth begins to righty-tighty, the most reliable way to gain an audience is to earn an audience by being differently better at your craft. We don’t all have golden pipes, or sparkling wits, but look at some of the top TED talks on YouTube—some of the most widely-seen talks are given by people who aren’t gifted speakers. They are differently better at their craft.

All of this is to say, if you want to grow your podcast, there is no substitute for mastery. Being "known” is out of your control. Start with being known for something. And have that something be excellence. Plant a flag for quality.


Unrelated—a reader wrote in to me this week saying that they were listening to a podcast on the iHeart network and were dynamically served an ad to listen to the stream of a not-at-all-local-to-them radio station from the Hudson Valley. This is the way the world ends; not with a bang, but a whimper.


I’ve got something exciting coming up for you next week—I’ve been talking to a lot of indie podcasters lately, and the most common questions I get generally revolve around how to understand/survey/learn from your listeners. So I'm cooking up a special treat for that. Be sure to subscribe, if you don’t already, and I’d love it if you forwarded this newsletter to anyone else who could use that info.


Finally, what I am listening to: Over the holidays, we were listening to the official soundtrack to our 18th-floor Tiny House in the Boston Sky, Yacht Rock on SiriusXM. As we were listening to a song by southern-rock stalwarts The Marshall Tucker Band (a band with no Marshalls or Tuckers) we were both struck by just how much damn flute there was in the song. So for the first new Deep Six of 2021, I went deep on FLUTE ROCK and didn’t even include Jethro Tull. Enjoy with Spotify Premium on the app only.

Have a great weekend. For many of us here in the U.S., it is a long weekend, and it is worth taking a moment, right now, to remember why that is. Years ago, I taught Rhetoric and Composition to freshmen at Penn State. As a part of the curriculum, all of us in the English Dept. assigned Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to our students as a masterclass in using all of the appeals of classical rhetoric. If you do nothing else this weekend, imagine Dr. King writing this from jail, scribbling it in the margins of a newspaper. Read it, or read it again. Share it with your kids.


https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/letterfrombirmingham_wwcw_0.pdf

-Tom

Photo Credits: Top photo by Xenophon - This file has been extracted from another file: Tittling Museumsdorf - Feldmayer-Haus Fässer.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54792591. Photo of T.S. Eliot By Lady Ottoline Morrell. “Ottoline” seems to have fallen out of fashion amongst girl-namers.