Eric Nuzum: Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Eric Nuzum is Co-Founder of podcast production and creative consulting company Magnificent Noise. This piece originally appeared on NiemanLab as part of their annual Predictions for Journalism in 2021 series.

March 11, 2020: The staff at our podcast company, Magnificent Noise, had lunch together. Sitting around the table, I said, “Perhaps this is the last day we should be coming into the office.” And it was. Outside of a trip to water plants and pick up mail every two or three weeks, I’ve pretty much been the only person who has gone back at all.

That isn’t unique to us, and it isn’t unique to podcasting. But podcasting had a wild ride in 2020, much different than other media and industries. The beginnings of lockdown were accompanied by a jaw-dropping decline in downloads and listening. Advertising buys were canceled at a dizzying rate. It looked bad. Really, really bad.

A few reporters asked me for my thoughts on the download decline, and I said it’ll bounce back. In radio, we’ve seen disruption like this on a smaller scale before — after 9/11 or a natural disaster, during the holidays, during the outbreak of military action — and things come back pretty quickly. One writer responded: “You can’t be serious.” I told him I was. He didn’t publish my response. (Nor did anyone else who asked.)

I don’t share that to show that I was right, but to note that — despite some incredible dire circumstances and predictions — podcasting had a pretty great year. That seems weird to say in 2020, with so much economic, health, and political turmoil, but it really did. Some impressive acquisitions happened. Revenue increased. Listening has not only bounced back but grown, and more people continue to discover podcasting.

Podcasters might be ready to wipe their brow and exclaim: Whew, we sure dodged that bullet. But that would be premature. There are many reasons to believe that 2021 will bring some significant bumps — ones that won’t upend podcasting but will dull the shine on the industry’s outsized buzz.

Three things lead me to say this.

The tide of the news cycle — and consumer interest in newsy content — will pull against us.

Nearly every organization that employs a reporter has spun up a daily or weekly news podcast, figuring that if The Daily can swing 4 million downloads a day, there has to be something at that table for them. But if you look at the long-term history of news media consumption, it looks like a staircase: quickly rising in the year or two leading up to an election cycle, then flattening for a year or two afterwards. In a post-Trump, post-pandemic, post-election world, even The Daily will have to work harder to maintain its audience (if that’s even possible). So will everyone else.

Acquisitions will taper off for a while.

If Wondery is acquired in the coming months [RAIN editor’s note: Wondery was acquired by Amazon just after this article was written], then pretty much every major buyable company in podcasting will have changed hands recently. For the industry, that’s healthy and normal. It clears the deck for a new tier of upstarts to grow in prominence and profile — a new generation of leading podcast companies which will eventually become large enough to attract those same M&A dollars.

That isn’t the problem. The problem is the buyers. I struggle to find a single example of a podcast company that’s been acquired in the past few years that has thrived under its new ownership. That lack of a clear post-acquisition success story — along with the comparatively low acquisition prices of podcast companies — will dull a lot of the enthusiasm for acquiring that next tier of companies. (I know it seems crazy, but to industry outsiders, a major podcast company selling for $300 to $400 million is not an impressive price.)

Let’s be honest: Our industry’s risk tolerance took a beating in 2020.

While the business of podcasting fared pretty well in 2020, its content ambitions took a major hit. The conservative trends we’ve seen emerging in the past several years accelerated during the pandemic. Nothing drives that home like this Podtrac chart of the most popular new podcasts of 2020. Notice any trends here? Rather than demonstrate an industry focused on adventurous and innovative content, this list looks like an industry focused on monetization and sameness.

When I consult with clients, I tell them the best choice for long-term prosperity is to focus on the listener’s short-term happiness. Give them great stuff and they’ll stick with you. And when they stick with you, the money follows. The answer to most questions is: Take the path that builds audience. But the core question is: What makes them happy?

There’s an old adage that if restaurants just focused their menus on what everybody loved, they’d eventually serve only mashed potatoes and peas. (If you know the origins of that saying, please let me know.) I’m sure many of the executives who greenlight some of the industry’s more formulaic and redundant content would say they’re just giving listeners what they want — and that’s fair. But look at what happened to pretty much any media sector (network TV, movie, books) when they’ve overindulged on repeating the content forms that consumers seemed to prefer. It becomes a high that never quite matches the way it first felt. Media has a long track record of forgetting the difference between what’s popular and easy to sell now with the novelty consumers will crave tomorrow.

So what’s the net effect of these three? In practical terms, not a lot. People will still listen. Downloads might soften, but they won’t crater or decline significantly. If anything, podcasting’s outsized prominence will come back down out of the clouds. But even if that happens, in a very real pragmatic sense, podcasting will still be the future of spoken word audio for the foreseeable future. Just not quite as hyperbolically so.

I’ve done these predictions for a number of years and so far, luckily, haven’t generated a lot of cringeworthy or profoundly incorrect prognostications. But this year, I really hope I’m wrong. I’d love it if someone waves this in my face next December and tells me that I missed what ended up being a great year. If there’s one consistency in the short history of podcasting, it’s the industry’s ability to surprise and evolve in directions that are difficult to foresee. In a world stuffed full of change, let’s hope that’s one thing that continues in the new year.

This piece originally appeared on NiemanLab as part of their annual Predictions for Journalism in 2021 series.


Eric Nuzum