Look, there’s no such thing as an emergency podcast. There might, just might, be a podcast emergency – though not because anyone has ever run out of podcasts – and there may well be many excellent podcasts about emergencies. But an emergency podcast? Stop it now.
Admittedly, my conviction in this regard arrived late on Friday after one of those rare spells of consciousness when I was divorced from the news cycle for a mind-freeing six hours, swaying in a beer-soaked field as Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker threw shapes against a projection of the moon.
At such blissful times, the tendency of news to keep happening anyway, without my permission, can feel like a bizarre and galling administrative mistake. The fact of the news itself, when I eventually stumble across it, is a disorientating irrelevance. Any attempt to inject it with a sense of urgency is a laughable category error.
So it was that the crescendo of Common People, a song written in the dying years of another Conservative administration, was about as close as my brain could get on Friday night to the concept of an uncommon person like Boris Johnson. But he had abruptly quit as an MP, which meant that in 24/7 Newsland, it was emergency podcast time. Perhaps it is not a total coincidence that the term is as ridiculous and breathless as him.
Podcasters, like politicians, are desperate for an audience. As soon as they let their grip on the microphone loosen, some other pretender is waiting to snatch it off them. The podcast stage, like the political arena, abhors a vacuum.
And yet, at the upper end of the podcast market, where celebrities have been raking in a level of cash that would make everybody save Johnson blush, there are signs that some air is coming out of the balloon.
Last week, Spotify said it was expanding its partnership efforts with leading podcasters across the globe with a tailored approach optimised for each show and creator. Sounds great, doesn’t it? This fundamental pivot, Spotify’s head of podcast business Sahar Elhabashi wrote in a blog post, would allow the Swedish audio platform to better support the creator community. Applause emoji all round.
Then the tone changed. This better support would require adapting to “the optimal organisation for this next chapter”, a strategic alignment of the group and a reduction in Spotify’s global podcast vertical and other functions by about 200 people.
It was letting go 2 per cent of its workforce, on top of the 6 per cent, or 600 people, it parted with in January. And, to the dismay of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) union, it was subsuming two of its agenda-declaring 2019 outlays on podcasts, Gimlet and true crime specialists Parcast, into its Spotify Studios operation.
Like those elusive Spotify profits, it seems the next chapter for Spotify podcasts, including its promise of “thriving monetisation” for creators, is just over the horizon. Along the way, if you listen to the WGA, there has been confusion, backtracking and half-finished projects left to “die on the vine”.
Spotify is not the entire podcast economy. Its redundancies, plus the 70 people laid off by Swedish podcast platform Acast last autumn, reflect an aggressive “invest first, recalibrate later” tech approach to chasing a media market. Its retreat does not necessarily have much to say about the status of the medium either for news outlets trying to build an audio audience or for radio groups segueing into on-demand.
In Ireland, for example, the most recently filed accounts for Tommy Tiernan, Hector Ó hEochagáin and Laurita Blewitt’s companies suggest that the three partners on the popular Tommy, Hector and Laurita podcast – promoted on seemingly every other podcast I listen to – are doing better than okay. Joanne McNally and Vogue Williams of My Therapist Ghosted Me, meanwhile, are the latest pod hosts to sell out a string of live tour dates.
In Britain, it seems safe to guess that radio empire Global – which last year poached Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall from the BBC for daily podcast The News Agents – isn’t done yet, while the ascent of Gary Lineker’s Goalhanger Podcasts – of The Rest is Politics and The Rest is History fame – is far too recent to call any downturn.
So as much as there was any real podcast bubble beyond gung-ho Big Tech, it has not burst. Consumption is still growing. And yet, as even the heaviest of audio consumers will have wondered, there must be natural limits to the proliferation of podcasters trying their luck.
In the US, the money is coming out of the top of the market – where the big-name, flashy signings used to be – but that doesn’t mean the muddling-along middle is being enriched or the hobbyists are suddenly being paid at all.
At some point in this business, the old “time is finite” rule will become too insurmountable to avoid. Audio is, by its nature, an inefficient method of consuming hard information compared to the written word. The best podcasts get around this by combining information with companionship. The best podcasters, like the best radio presenters, become our friends. The trouble is we only have a certain amount of bandwidth available for our friends. Amassing new ones may require dumping old favourites.
In this frenzied battle for listeners, it is hardly surprising that even successful podcast brands – which is any podcast you have actually heard of – vie for attention using the inflationary language of today’s forever hyped-up media.
But the apocalypse will not be recorded, edited and uploaded. An emergency podcast is still ignorable and oxymoronic in a way an emergency broadcast is not.