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Podcasts in 2022 started with a boycott and ended with a next-level horror show

Despite a post-pandemic slowdown in growth, the format is expanding its boundaries all the time

How long is a year in podcasting? Who can even remember that 2022 opened with a shake-up of the biggest podcasting platform out there and is closing with a horror show?

The runway to January 2022 stretches back to 2020, when Spotify made its big play with the acquisition – for a reported $200 million (€190 million) – of exclusive rights to stream The Joe Rogan Experience, the freewheeling, crazy-leaning YouTube show turned audio behemoth from a New Jersey-born comedian and one-time UFC commentator. It looked like money well spent, with Rogan cementing Spoitfy’s status as the biggest podcast-streaming platform around.

Then came Neil Young. (Not a sentence I write very often.) In January of this year, the elder statesman of North American folk-rock made good on a threat to remove all his music from Spotify in protest at the platform’s Rogan deal. He specifically took aim at the Rogan show’s broadcasts (and broadsides) against Covid vaccines. Young called on other artists to join him in his protest, and some did follow suit, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash and India Arie among them. Writer Roxane Gay pulled her Roxane Gay Agenda podcast, never to return, while academic and author Brene Brown paused her own podcasts on the platform, with which she also has an exclusive deal.

But the Spotify takedown sputtered and died – Rogan issued a Roganesque apology, Brown restarted her podcast, and the majority of other musicians and podcasters kept the head down and powered on – allowing the platform to finish the year stronger than ever, outperforming closest podcast rivals Apple and Google.

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Competition is heating up though: this was also the year that YouTube launched its dedicated podcasts home page, and reached out to podcasters offering “grants” for them to film their shows. Twitter got in on the action in August, rolling out its redesigned Spaces tab with the integration of podcasts that you can listen to directly on Twitter as well as a “discoverability” feature suggesting new options.

While the pandemic podcasting boost may be tapering off – the growth of podcast listeners is still robust, but definitely slowed once we all started leaving the house again – there are still more daily podcast listeners, and the Irish, according to a midyear Reuters Institute Digital Report, are hard at it, topping a 20-country sample with 46 per cent of the population cited as recent listeners. No wonder everybody wants in on that audience.

The question, as ever, is how to make an audience pay for anything on the internet. Increasingly podcasters are turning to Patreon as an income source, and for good reason. Currently, the top creator on Patreon is a podcast – True Crime Obsessed boasts more than 44,000 patrons, the smallest spenders kicking in just $5 a month. As hosts Patrick Hinds and Gillian Pensavalle might say, you do the math. Podcasts are big Patreon business.

Irish Patreon superstars include OG podcasters Second Captains – ranked 16th among all the podcasts on the site and boasting more than 13,000 patrons, who pay tens of thousands of euros per month – and Cork-based I’m Grand Mam, which has 1,135 patrons, bagging a cool $3,000 to $8,000 monthly. Not bad earnings for a cup of tea and some spilling thereof.

Another income source and marketing slam dunk, the podcast live show, also flexed its muscles this year. A glance at the event calendar for the next few months shows podcasting stalwarts the 2 Johnnies with an imminent 3Arena appearance, podcaster, comedian Jarlath Regan hitting Liberty Hall Theatre next month, and the wildly successful My Therapist Ghosted Me! at the Gaiety in February. As we move out of our bunkers and into the world at large, live shows are all about podcasters meeting the audiences they grew when it was just us and our AirPods.

Beyond delivery platforms and money matters, though, there’s the content. One marked trend of note in 2022 was an uptick and investment in narrative fiction podcasts. This year′s first big success in that arena was Batman Unburied, the result of a deal between Warner Bros and Spotify inked in 2020 that turned into audio gold. When the first episodes dropped in May of this year, it knocked Rogan off the top of the Spotify charts and garnered millions of listeners across the world, from Mexico and India to Brazil and Italy, with highly-produced audio, big name actors, and a slick, suspenseful and fresh script.

Fiction in podcasting isn’t new – Welcome to Night Vale has been going since 2016 after all and don’t get me started on the radio plays these 21st century iterations are rooted in, but The Archers can definitely take a bow. However, narrative fiction in this space is really gaining some momentum, and big names are paying attention. After Batman Unburied’s big success, we learned in May that Spotify had promoted Gimlet Media’s Mimi O’Donnell to oversee scripted fiction on the platform. Not long after came Case 63, a riveting, 10-episode adaptation of a Chilean hit about a psychiatrist and her maybe time-travelling patient, starring Oscar Isaac and Julianne Moore. That one also claimed Spotify’s number one slot in Ireland, the US, Canada and Britain after its October 25th release.

Now we close out the year with the latest fictional blockbuster, Quiet Part Loud, fresh to our ears thanks to Gimlet Media and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions. Peele is executive producer and O’Donnell directs this grim and unsettling 12-parter, set in the US soon after 9/11, with Tracy Lett playing a right-wing radio host spewing xenophobia who loses his slot when he starts broadcasting conspiracy theories about three disappeared Muslim teens from Staten Island. Peele has said he’s hoping it will be “the scariest podcast of all time,” and parts of it are definitely terrifying, though which parts depends on whether your phobia is paranormal earworms or Rush Limbaugh. The audio design is next-level, though, a sonic experience and metaphorical horror that rings long after your pods are clicked back in their case.

In short, for those predicting the imminent demise of the podcast, 2022 offers proof of life aplenty. The big streamers got bigger, but the individual creators also found ways to bank their brilliance, and what began with a showdown ends with a horror show. Thank you for listening.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and journalist