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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).

Spotify has made multimillion-dollar podcasting agreements with the Obamas, the Sussexes and Kim Kardashian West

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?

“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.”

QCode, critics suggest, takes the concepts of indie drama (dystopia, horror, sci-fi, diversity) and straightens them out

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?”

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”.

“It’s a weird little niche that exists outside the mainstream mostly,” she says. “There’s a lot of queerness and racial diversity in the characters in the stories, without making that the actual story.”

This aspect might be changing: several people pointed me to dramas made by QCode, a new, well-funded podcast company formed by ex-Hollywood insiders. QCode, its critics suggest, takes the concepts of indie drama – dystopia, horror, sci-fi, diversity – and then straightens them out, making queer relationships straight, and (you guessed it) employing big Hollywood celebrities as actors, such as Richard Madden and Demi Moore.

In comics, Marvel and DC blockbuster films exist alongside and feed in and out of the original magazines and books. And this has started to happen in podcast world: not only was Marvels written by Shippen, the creator of The Bright Sessions, but Wolverine: The Long Night – the successful scripted podcast that came out in 2018 – used Love + Radio producer Brendan Baker as director. (As an aside: Spotify has signed an exclusive deal with DC: its new Batman series is due to come out this year, and will be written by David S Goyer, an established screenwriter.)

The worry is that other, smaller, odder stories, which might be just as interesting, won’t get funded, and we all miss out. Podcasts, for many years, were about community and ideas. If you had a great concept, whether for an interview show, a drama or an investigation, then a podcast was a low-stakes way of making it real. The podcasting community was once so small that when Welcome to Night Vale co-creator Jeffrey Cranor came to London, he met up with Zaltzman, simply because they both made podcasts. These days, such “you do the same odd thing I do” insta-friendships seem less likely.

* * *

To be fair, the brands know that its community is part of podcasting’s appeal. Craig Strachan, head of podcasts for Europe, Australia and New Zealand at Amazon Music, emails to say that one of his “favourite aspects about podcasting” is “how grassroots and open it still is, compared with other media”.

“We can all agree that most good podcasts are not produced in isolation,” he says, “and there are many global, local, and genre-specific podcasting communities that an independent podcaster can join to hone their craft and grow their audience. As we saw with the British Podcast Awards, many of the winners and nominees… started out as independents themselves, and were facilitated by great podcasting peers. Being an active member of this community is key.”

He also points out that many podcasts exist just for “podcast’s sake” and that this will change. “People are looking for a podcast with a purpose,” he says, “whether that’s to entertain, educate or enlighten. I’d advise any podcaster-to-be to really think about what they want to do with their podcast.”

Related: Was a serial arsonist hiding in plain sight? – podcasts of the week

It feels a little like gentrification: cheap, diverse, slightly grotty areas of a city that have their own style and rhythm and culture are discovered by those with money and the character changes. Yes, those small local cafes might still exist for a while, but if another, bigger premises is taken over by a brand that appears local, but is actually Pret, then newcomers won’t know – “I just found this great place!” – and will spend their money there.

Discoverability, talent, community and, yes, money are all what independent podcasts have always had to take on. It’s just that the stakes have got higher.

“I’ve always had the belief,” says Westervelt, “that if you make quality stuff, it will find an audience. But,” she admits, “it does worry me.”

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