Have we reached peak podcast?
All signs are that there’s still room to grow in this hottest of audio mediums
After almost 40 years on the broadcast airwaves, after being dumped from “Coach’s Corner” on “Hockey Night in Canada,” Don Cherry started a podcast. In 2019, was there anything else to do? In a world where old media continues to collapse in on itself, podcasts still smell and sound like roses growing out of the crumbling pavement. Despite the New York Times asking if we’ve hit peak podcast this past summer — in part because of the more than 750,000 that litter various platforms — the truth is that they only have room to grow and that plenty of new fans have yet to fall down the listening rabbit hole.
The stats bear out that 30 per cent of people listen to at least one podcast a month. They are young and urban, and always on their phones, the kind of customers advertisers crave but who are ever harder to get. Podcasts are a growth medium for a certain segment of listeners, one whose appetite never seems to sated.
“Of the people that listen regularly, 26 per cent of them are power listeners, meaning they’re listening for five hours or more per week, and that group consumes about 75 per cent of podcasts out there,” says Jeff Ulster, who works on the annual Canadian Podcast Listener report and the Podcast Exchange, an organization that helps marketers and podcasts work together.
“It’s not that dissimilar to the 80-20 rule they talk about in other areas. It’s really a similar phenomenon where you have a subgroup of people that are doing most of the consumption and everyone else is a lighter consumer. So there’s some kind of conversion trial that happens where someone goes through never having listened to a podcast to becoming the power listener, and we’re trying to better understand what those steps are and how some people are falling out of that tunnel.”
Ulster says the research also shows that the best way for people to start listening or find new podcasts is through word of mouth and recommendations from friends and family.
The medium is technically almost 15 years old, but it feels hotter than ever.
There’s the proliferation of celebrity podcasts, which have provided a bigger second act for stars such as Joe Rogan and Dax Shepard, or additional outlets for personalities such as TSN’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, but they have also become a refuge for traditional broadcasters such as Cherry and former morning show DJ Mike Richards.
There have also been high profile moves, as at the CBC, one of the country’s podcasting hotbeds, where Anna Maria Tremonti, the longtime host of radio’s “The Current,” left to start a podcast called “More.” Journalist Connie
Walker left the CBC to join Gimlet Media, one of the best known companies in the space, which was purchased by Spotify in February for $230 million (U.S.).
Speaking of the music streaming giant, Spotify also bought Anchor, a company that helps people make, publish and monetize podcasts. Those moveshelped the company to its best financial quarter in years.
At this year’s Hot Docs Podcast Festival in Toronto, the general feeling among several folks we talked to on all sides of the industry was that Canada has creators making compelling content along with a growing audience that wants more content that speaks to them, but the advertising ecosystem here is slower than in the United States.
“Listen, if I read another article about the $6 billion that companies are spending in podcasts, I’m going to be sick.
These are obviously American articles … The fact that I have six different companies cutting me a cheque every month is the exception, not the norm in the Canadian independent podcast game outside of Jesse Brown (whose Canadaland is funded through crowdfunding via Patreon),” says Mike Boon, who podcasts as Toronto Mike, interviewing notable people from the city for years. He recently posted his 560th episode.
He also runs a digital marketing and services company, and provides podcast production services for a number of former radio personalities, such as Humble and Fred and sportscaster Mark Hebscher. He has a dedicated audience, sponsors and runs live events. Boon is the classic podcast enthusiast who has turned something he’s passionate about into his own little podcasting empire.
“I’m really proud of the fact that I’m at the point I am now,” he says. “And I don’t love doing (the sales aspect), but luckily, I haven’t had to do a lot of hustling because people hear the show and they want to be a part of it.”
Many people liken podcast growth to blogging in the early aughts. It started as everyone’s hobby; some people went pro and struck out for themselves while others were co-opted by the bigger players.
It’s much different at the top end, where the industry is mature enough that many of the first wave of podcasters and behind-the-scenes folks have spun off production companies, and are targeting corporations and media companies with offers to produce podcasts. There has also been a wave of sponsored content podcasts, as research shows that fans of podcasts are willing to more actively support shows that they like. That said, some skepticism lingers. “It’s definitely hot among cool brands, or those with big budgets, but for a lot of companies the return on investment just isn’t there. It still costs a lot to produce for generally a small listenership,” says one ad agency executive who preferred not to share his name, in part because he was worried it might dissuade a client from making a podcast, which he admitted can still be lucrative.
But it’s not all rosy. Getting discovered is still a huge issue, particularly for noncelebrity-hosted podcasts. There are also many platforms, so there isn’t a onestop shop for podcasts.
But at the top end, growth and opportunities continue to appear. CBC has gone heavily into podcasts and has a string of successes, such as this year’s launch of “Front Burner” and new seasons of “Undercover,” “The Secret Life of Canada,” “The Village” and its most recent launch, “Hunting Warhead.”
“We never speak in terms of peak podcast,” says Arif Noorani, executive producer of CBC Podcasts. “We see ourselves as creating premium podcasts that can arise in a very crowded universe.
“As you know, there are over 750,000 podcasts out there and every one we make, in every genre, we try to make sure it’s at the highest level of storytelling, whether that’s the investigative work we do, or documentary narrative storytelling or audio fiction; that is the most important thing.”
Noorani says the CBC sees podcasting as an addition to radio, with the big difference being that it attracts much younger audiences: the average CBC podcast listener is 35, while radio listeners tend to be in their 60s. And having a robust podcasting strategy has opened up other opportunities, such as partnering with international podcast producers or networks, or potentially spinning off podcasts into another medium such as television, the way Gimlet did with “Homecoming,” which became a series starring Julia Roberts.
“I think what’s great about podcasting is that it can tell the stories of so many different people. It finds audiences all over the place and I think there’s lots more room to grow,” Noorani says.
“I think there is a real growth going on in the Canadian scene overall. Like three years ago, there were just a small handful of companies doing stuff. Now there are more and more, and I think it’s great, actually, because I think it brings more audiences to podcasting …
“So I feel like we haven’t reached peak podcast because I do think it’s like books. People’s appetite for books is never-ending and I think it will be the same for podcasting.”