When Stephen King calls your production the best true crime podcast he’s ever heard, you know you’ve done something right. It was quite the win for a tiny New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) podcast team, which goes up against big-name production companies in an increasingly crowded and volatile podcast market.
But while NHPR basks in the glow of this win, big names like NPR and Spotify—a traditional radio stalwart and a digital-native streaming company—find themselves stumbling after making big bets on podcasts. So, why are podcasts such a boon for some while they seem to be weighing other companies down? As is so often the case in the media industry, you have to look at the strategy.
Trouble in podcast paradise
According to data from Edison’s The Infinite Dial Report, podcasts have more listeners than ever—and those listeners are engaged and affluent. Well over half (64%) of people over the age of 12 in the U.S. have listened to a podcast; 42% have listened in the last month; 31% have listened in the last week. That audience skews young, with 40% of people between the ages of 12-34 tuning in weekly. With an estimated 89 million people listening to podcasts on a weekly basis, the audience is also diverse — 45% of Black Americans and 34% of Hispanic Americans listen monthly. It was only a matter of time before the money started to flow.
In 2019, Spotify paid a reported $340 million for Gimlet and Anchor. In 2020, The New York Times paid $25 million for Serial Productions. But in January 2023, Spotify announced it would lay off 6% of its workforce and that Chief Content Officer Dawn Ostroff was leaving. Ostroff was the driving force behind over $1 billion in podcast spending to get exclusive deals with big-name podcasters. As Morning Brew Reports, “Although the layoffs don’t specifically target Spotify’s podcasting staff, the departure of Ostroff is yet another sign that the company is slowing down its full-steam-ahead approach to the space.”
In March of 2023, NPR made a similar announcement, declaring that it would cancel four podcasts as it looks to cut costs. The story is the same across the board; diminishing ad revenue gets the blame. But it’s hard not to acknowledge the elephant in the room — an over-reliance on the podcast craze to boost the bottom line.
Betting big on podcast revenue
Part of the appeal of podcasts has always been their guerilla nature. From Marc Maron’s garage to the original “My Favorite Murder” pod-loft, there was a certain informality to it all. Then “Serial” came along, bringing a more refined sound to podcast players and changing the way listeners — and investors — perceive podcasts. Suddenly, a medium best known for off-the-cuff conversations and sometimes-questionable audio quality was a viable channel for journalism.
Still, it wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic pushed people even more online that the podcast acquisition market truly heated up. “The podcast megadeals of the pandemic may have been premature—podcasting made up just 7% of total listening on Spotify in Q1 2022, the company said, despite the massive investment in tentpole shows,” according to Morning Brew “And the exclusive show model that makes popular shows available only to subscribers of a given streamer hasn’t proven wildly successful. The Gimlet and Parcast unions announced that making certain shows Spotify exclusives reduced their listenership by as much as 75% in some instances.”
Not only was a general decline in ad revenues an issue, but so was a massive decline in listenership. In short, Spotify bet that making popular podcasts available exclusively on its platform would drive subscriptions. That bet did not pay off. This dynamic has played out across multiple providers where the investment outweighed revenue.
Podcast strategies that work
While some networks are still figuring out where and how podcasts best fit into their content strategy, others are seeing big success. For instance, Vox Media forecasts that its podcast network will reach more than 500 million in 2023. According to Hollywood Reporter, “The audience figures, which Vox Media is releasing for the first time, represent a measured approach to growth for the media brand’s podcasting business, which began in 2011 with the launch of Vox’s first podcast but didn’t become formalized until 2017 with the debut of the standalone Vox Media Podcast Network.” In the ensuing five years, the network has acquired Preet Bharara’s Cafe Studios as well as Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer’s Criminal Productions. It’s also brought in Esther Perel, and other new talent.
So what’s the difference between Vox and Spotify, both of which are investing in popular podcasts? The most obvious is that Vox is not limiting access to the content. But there is more to the story. “They’re getting into the podcast business as an extension of their journalism,” says Rebecca Lavoie, Director of On-Demand Audio at NHPR and a podcaster in her own right, as host of Crime Writers On… and Netflix’s You Can’t Make This Up. And this happens to be the same way the NHPR team approaches its podcasts — just an extension of its journalism, or another way to tell stories.
Bear Brook may be Stephen King’s favorite NHPR podcast, but it is not the only podcasting juggernaut put out by the team. “Civics 101” launched in 2016, and is — almost inexplicably — still growing. “Our audience grew by…almost 30% just this year,” says Lavoie. Meanwhile, when we spoke, Bear Brook’s second season had just surpassed 2 million downloads for eight episodes. Importantly, however, the team behind Bear Brook is small and nimble — so small that host Jason Moon also writes and records the music. NHPR relies largely on swapping ad spots with related podcasts to help spread the word, and has a diverse number of revenue streams for its podcasts.
“So, my show outside of NHPR, we’ve got ads, and we’ve got Patreon. That’s it. You know, if you’re a bigger show, you could also do live shows, you could do merch, there’s a limited number of things you can do, but they’re all commercial,” says Lavoie. While NHPR has a commercial advertising partnership with Stitcher, it can also ask for member support, can apply for grants because they are nonprofit, and make appeals to major donors to support special projects. “We’re not relying on venture capital seed money, we are relying on nonprofit stewardship,” she adds.
A public radio podcasting renaissance
Up until six months or a year ago, Lavoie says she was chagrined by much of what she heard from the NPR-verse; “Because public radio has never really behaved like it’s part of the podcast industry, right? We have some of the most talented people, we have all of the infrastructure, we have the best microphones, we have these great narrative storytellers. But there’s all this hesitancy to just get into it.” But that’s changing. From stalwarts like WBEZ and little-known stations like KCUR out of Kansas, public radio is finally “getting” podcasts.
Importantly, NHPR and other member stations don’t have to make a profit, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned from this scrappy team. Podcasts have the ability to experiment with new revenue streams. Grants may not be possible for traditional for-profit media companies, but finding individual supporters interested in funding the work you do is — especially for highly focused, narrative podcasts. From live shows to merch, podcast listeners support their favorite shows in a variety of ways that journalists just are not used to. So, it’s time to get creative.