Mark Ramsey: The Biggest Problem With Podcasting Is —

mark ramsey author logoGuest columnist Mark Ramsey is a media strategist, research analyst, author, and producer of the annual Hivio audio future festival. This article was originally published on his Mark Ramsey Media website.

Everyone’s abuzz about podcasting!

Well, kind of.

Maybe not everyone.

You’ve probably seen the 2016 stats: According to Edison, 21% of Americans ages 12 and up have listened to a podcast in the past month.

That’s followed by this spin on trends: “That is up from 17% in 2015. Monthly podcast listenership has increased 75% since 2013.”

Everyone deserves a high-five, right? Those numbers are huge!

But wait a minute.

I think folks in the audio space are missing the bigger story: Only 21% of us have listened to even one podcast in the past month.

Consider that there are 47 million Netflix subscribers in the US. And since one “subscriber” usually equates to a family of viewers, there are probably at least 100 million Netflix consumers nationwide. HBO likewise has about 50 million subscribers in the US, again suggesting an audience of at least 100 million US consumers. That’s at least 31% of the US population – each. And while “podcasting” is an entire category, Netflix and HBO are only two platforms within a much larger category.

Meanwhile while 21% of us have listened to a podcast in the past month, more than 85% of us watch TV and more than 90% listen to the radio – and not just to one show in 30 days!

This argument is not intended to diminish the importance or growth trajectory of podcasting. It is important and it is growing.

Rather, I’m suggesting that the podcasting world should stop slapping itself on its back and ask the bigger question: Why are we still so small?

You can blame technology, of course, and the speed-bumps associated with discovery and usage. Those are real. But if you want to talk about speed-bumps let’s talk about the $10 per month an HBO or Netflix subscription costs. It seems to me that $120 per year is a bigger speed bump than what most of podcasting faces.

I think there’s a bigger problem, and that problem persists despite an ocean of podcasts – and hundreds of new ones coming online every day.

The problem is not that there isn’t enough choice or even enough discovery. The problem is the absence of a hit.

You know what makes the speed-bumps of HBO or Netflix vanish? The fact that there’s only one way to watch Westworld or Orange is the New Black. And that way is to buy a subscription. In other words, where there’s a strong enough will, there’s a way.

The problem isn’t that we lack instructional videos on “how to listen to podcasts.” The problem isn’t simply to make the tech less techy or discovery easier. The problem is to make a hit that’s must-hear and can be heard only here.

What makes people subscribe to HBO or Netflix? Their hits. Their exclusive hits.

What makes people buy a song? A hit worth listening to, over and over.

What makes people visit the movie theater? A hit that’s must-see and can’t be found on VOD.

Now this is important: The newer the category, the more important is the hit.

That is, when a category is new, the category doesn’t create the hit, the hit creates the category.

What accounts for the modest jump in podcast usage over the past year? Most likely the hubbub surrounding the Serial podcast, a bona fide hit. And by “hit” I mean something that’s bigger than the category that gave birth to it and drives interest and tune-in to the category.

Too many podcasters are obsessed with cross-promoting their podcasts so as to leverage each other’s audiences to benefit our own. That’s a way of looking at the world which assumes the pie will never grow so we had better fight harder for the biggest slice of the pie we have.

And that’s silly.

The problem with podcasts is all the folks who ignore them.

And if you really want to grow the category and solve this problem, you need to aim well beyond the limits of the category itself.

You need to make a hit.

Mark Ramsey


  1. I agree that a “hit” benefits everyone in the podcast space, and that it would be great if we had more of them. I’m just having trouble seeing how that connects to your first point, which seemed to be about HBO and Netflix being successful as brands through exclusivity of their content (“You know what makes the speed-bumps of HBO or Netflix vanish? The fact that there’s only one way to watch Westworld or Orange is the New Black.”).

    Hit songs aren’t successful because they’re exclusive to a platform or behind a paywall … hit songs are ubiquitous. You can’t avoid them – they’re everywhere. And that snowballs into making them bigger hits (or perhaps facilitated that).

    Also, Neflix/HBO, etc. are distinct branded services that aggregate content. In the case of Netflix, it’s pulling in content from many different providers. I agree that their exclusive content has really helped lift the service and improve it, for sure. But I’m trying to figure out how your analogies with those companies could apply to the podcast space. You say “The problem is to make a hit that’s must-hear and can be heard only here.” Are you suggesting that NPR should only make their hit podcasts available on their owned and operated platforms, for example?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks!

  2. The problem Mark mentions is common throughout the digital world. Pandora and Spotify are extremely popular platforms. Yet the only hits they have are those made and owned by others. So they’re a distribution platform. Not a programmer. Two different things. They are not content creators. People don’t tune in to Pandora to hear Rush Limbaugh or Ryan Seacrest. They use it the way people used to use their phonograph or cassette deck.

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