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As top podcast executives and creators gathered at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn for the Hot Pod Summit on Feb. 23, a question seemed to underlie each conversation: As the industry seeks an injection of new energy amid an advertising market correction and creators experiment with formats like video, what really is a podcast these days — and how will people make money?
In various conversations with studio executives and creators, a common refrain were the difficulties of turning a profit on podcasting alone. Even Spotify, which recently revised its podcast leadership (again) and had layoffs and show cancelations in its podcast division, is reevaluating its spending after pouring more than $1 billion into licensing deals and acquisitions in the past few years.
As such, repackaging audio content and seeking out derivatives like film and TV adaptations could be the key to actually making good money in podcasting, especially now that the megadeals of recent years are getting rarer and podcasters are feeling the pressure to seek out more ad dollars from bigger buyers to keep the lights on long term. And all of this isn’t even to acknowledge the creative ambitions around podcasting, where creators want to produce expensive, buzzy narrative projects that can have a tangible impact on policy or public conversation but may have a harder time receiving funding and support compared to the more assured successes of cheaper, always-on chat shows.
But the move toward new formats was hard to ignore, especially as Spotify’s main presence at a summit for podcast executives was about, well, audiobooks. Featuring Nir Zicherman, the co-founder of the podcast hosting service Anchor who now leads up Spotify’s audiobooks business, author Gretchen Rubin and Penguin Random House Audio content executive Dan Zitt, the discussion didn’t avoid the blurring lines between podcasts and audiobooks and the multiple business models that could exist within that mix.
“Everybody’s scared to call a podcast an audiobook and an audiobook a podcast. But if you really squint, it’s harder to differentiate — and that is only accelerating over the course of the next few years,” Zicherman said at the summit, noting that Spotify was seeking to target the “casual listener” with its audiobooks offering.
Zitt was even less precious about a delineation between the two. “Why does there have to be a line drawn at all? This is all audio entertainment to some extent. If there are different models for distributing it, which there are, why not just find the best models to distribute it where people get fairly paid?” Zitt said. “I mean, there are podcasts that are basically now taking all 15 episodes, combining them into one, and selling them in the audiobook space, so it’s not really like these things are working independently now.”
But the audiobooks debate paled in comparison to the trend du jour: how video can be incorporated into audio creators’ workflow and boost business for executives. “Last year when we were all in this room, we could not stop talking about Spotify,” The Verge editor Nilay Patel said in a talk with iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group CEO Conal Byrne. “This year, all in this room, we’re all talking about YouTube and video.”
Despite podcasting being known as an audio medium, there’s been growing interest around the role of video podcasting — a format most notably seeing interest from players like Spotify, where top creators including Alex Cooper (Call Her Daddy) and Emma Chamberlain (Anything Goes) now regularly release video podcasts as part of their exclusive partnerships with the company. For Cooper, her video podcasts focus on her weekly guests who sit down to tape an interview at her West Hollywood studio, though the creator released a documentary-style video on abortion last October; Chamberlain, who only recently joined Spotify, has so far released two static videos of her recording her podcast in front of the mic.
The general sentiment is that video podcasts can help drive more views, especially if a podcast host has a notable guest on for an interview, and can more easily be shared and have a chance to go viral on popular social platforms like TikTok. And with more views means more ad impressions and money going into the pockets of creators and executives.
The prevalence of video podcasts on YouTube has seemed to support that bullishness, as some polls have found a growing number of listeners — 46 percent, per a January survey from Morning Consult — who prefer to watch their podcasts and see YouTube as the preferred platform to do so, over rivals like Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
But will video really be what injects new energy into a maturing medium? It’s a yes and no, as some Hot Pod audience members who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter say the fervor feels reminiscent of the so-called pivot to video that digital publishers fell victim to in the early 2010s to meet the demands of Facebook. Even YouTube isn’t placing all its bets on video podcasting. At the summit, YouTube’s head of podcasting, Kai Chuk, said the Google-owned company recognizes that “podcasting is generally an audio-first medium” and is implementing new features to better label audio-only podcasts on the service. Appearing onstage, Chuk and Steve McClendon, the podcasting product lead at Google, said that podcasts will be added to the YouTube Music streaming service “in the near future,” making the listening experience seem more similar to platforms like Apple and Spotify.
Conal Byrne, in his discussion with Patel, also cautioned against creating content specifically for one platform or format. “To some extent, you kill creativity and true innovation when you start to reverse engineer where assets should be for the content platform that it’s going to be distributed on,” he said. “In fact, you almost certainly kill true creativity when you hit that moment.”
Reaching that admirable goal of creating for creativity and innovation won’t always be the same for each studio and creator; iHeart’s massive-reach business model reliant on ads won’t necessarily work for a smaller studio prioritizing prestige content and banking on future adaptations to bring in the cash. But the industry will keep experimenting and, just maybe, something will stick.
“Ideas are what we should be investing in and thinking about,” Kaleidoscope evp Kate Osborn said. “Because if the conversation is only about, ‘Where can I put all of my energy into the thing that’s already working,’ then we’re 15 steps behind what is going to be the future. … This industry has changed every year for the last 10 years, so if we’re only going to cater to the now, then where are we?”
A version of this story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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