Podcasts have never been bigger, more popular or more profitable… so after 12 years, why have I decided that now is the time to get out?
Podcasts have literally never been bigger. Every day, a fresh story creeps into our feeds about some media giant making a huge new play into the format, or some network we’ve never heard of announcing a merger, acquisition or celebrity hosting deal.
For years, we’ve seen reports of rocketing audience statistics and statements on how podcasts ‘build deep connections’, ‘create powerful engagement’ or other such nonsense sentences real people don’t use outside of marketing meetings.
And I get it. Podcasts are a wonderful way to reach people. They do register in ways other channels just don’t. They do forge close relationships between creators and listeners. They do establish communities and encourage advocacy. They also sell a fuck-load of mattresses.
So there’s probably never been a better time to be a podcaster, right? Well, maybe for you. But after 12 years I’ve decided my time is done. Here are my reasons four.
#1 It’s not about community anymore, it’s about audience
Now, before I get too ‘old man yells at cloud’, let me tell you about what podcasting is to me… and why I think that’s changed.
I started podcasting in 2009 having fallen in love with shows like Filmspotting and The Hollywood Saloon. These radio-style US podcasts tapped into my love of movies, but also led me to other shows like Nowhere In Mulberry, Outside the Cinema and, in the UK, Mondo Movie, Chinstroker vs Punter and Cinerama. Shows that were hosted by, well, people like me.
Thanks to social media, these guys were also pretty accessible. We struck up online friendships through Twitter and had endless conversations about film (it was back in the days when people had conversations on Twitter). And, when the time came to launch my own podcast, they helped me get started and encouraged their listeners to lend me both their ears and their support. Which they did.
In the years that followed, those online connections turned into real life friendships. We’ve run podcasts and websites together. We’ve met at film festivals and conventions. We’ve been to one another’s stag parties and weddings (I was best man at one) and have run wild in the countryside with only our wits and a copy of Lulu’s autobiography to keep us warm. We’ve met up with listeners, and have drank the night away with genre directors and b-list actors. All this and so much more, because of podcasts.
To me, that’s community. Like-minded people coming together around a mutual interest. It might be about where you live, it might be about what you love, but ultimately community is about sharing something. Communities talk, collaborate, feedback, get involved. Audiences consume. And it’s getting harder to even manage that because…
#2 It’s Josh Widdecomb’s world now
Here’s where this might start to sound like sour grapes, so I’ll do my best to assure you up front that it’s really not. But the truth of the matter is, I just can’t compete.
After my first one-man show Film Rant, I joined 35mm Heroes with a couple of the aforementioned podcasting friends. But before long, I wanted to see if I could use the medium to help me write a book. I’d become obsessed with the idea of revisiting some of the ‘lost’ (they aren’t anymore) movies I’d watched on VHS as a kid, and figured it would make a great writing project, but also a worthwhile podcast.
The show was a success. Across 18 episodes, I racked up 40k downloads in countries all over the world. I interviewed childhood cult movie heroes like Brian Yuzna, Graham Humphreys and Lloyd Kaufman. Adventures in VHS somehow found its way into the iTunes movie podcast Top 5 alongside names like Mark Kermode and Kevin Smith, leading to a huge spike in downloads. Most importantly though, by the time I’d finished with it, the show had given me enough of an audience to publish the book.
That couldn’t happen today. It just couldn’t. Over the last few years, an absolutely incalculable number of celebrities have launched their own podcasts, including virtually every single comedian I can possibly think of. And I don’t blame them. Many will have assistants who can arrange guests, engineers that can set up a studio, production teams to edit and fix the sound, as well as marketing teams to drag in the listeners. Aside from that, most of them are just way more interesting than me. To give you an example, this year saw Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen launch a podcast. Fucking Bama and The Boss. Literally two of the coolest people in the world. How do I go up against that?
Of course, there are still great non-celebrity podcasts out there. Shows that have built an audience consistently and carefully over the years and have retained loyal audiences as a result. But my fear is that, for the most part, while the podcast ‘boom’ may have been ushered in by these kinds of shows, modern, mainstream audiences are coming to expect certain things from podcasts – and this includes name and/or brand recognition. And if that’s the case, I reckon…
#3 I’ve said what I came to say
I know right? See, in my head this is my Hard Harry moment. The moment I scream into the PA from the back of a Jeep that it’s over for me, but for you it’s just the beginning. That you should seize the air. Steal it. Talk hard (if you get the reference, congrats, you’re on my team). But I’m afraid it’s not.
I’ve done plenty of conversational podcasts, they’re great. All the writing, polishing and smart editing in the world can never touch what you can do with two or three people in a room having a good chat. Those are the podcasts I listen to – they just aren’t the ones I want to make. Sadly, the podcasts I want to make involve ‘writing, polishing and smart editing’. And look, that’s on me…
I like to spend my time researching a topic, pulling in quotes and citations, backing up my argument and referencing cultural touch-points as evidence. Once I’ve done the research, I like to refine it, give it my voice, work in clips and music, and ensure all of the component parts come together to form one cohesive whole. Something that pulls people in, takes them on a journey (sorry, bullshit marketing speak, let me have that one) and gives them a satisfying conclusion.
Adventures in VHS was pretty good. A fun show that did well. But it was absolute arse compared to my 80s pop culture podcast Beyond the Neon. I gave that show so much care and attention to ensure the research, argument, expert opinion and humour worked just how I wanted it to. It was everything I’d learned from doing one-man and interview podcasts for years, poured into one carefully-crafted series. And I’m dead proud of it. But by the time I’d put it out into the world, we were already in that ‘podcast boom’.
Beyond the Neon got about 4% of the audience numbers for AiVHS and the community element was absolutely non-existent. Maybe nostalgia and cult movies is an easier sell than what Beyond the Neon was. Maybe I didn’t work the marketing as hard as I could. But to put in so much effort on a show and get nothing in return… it breaks your heart. And after it happens a few times, you just start to think ‘you know, maybe I’m done with this.’
Like I say, I’m very happy with Beyond the Neon. I’m also really proud of the one-off ‘Character and motivation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’ episode I did for Pod Syndicate, which was a deep dive into how the MCU was born and how the characters on the page were translated for what we know today. But again, when I put it out into the world, not that many people listened to it – and absolutely no-one commented on it. And I think that might have been the final nail in the coffin.
A major inspiration for both Beyond the Neon and the MCU show would be the aforementioned Hollywood Saloon, which took a scripted, documentary style approach to dissecting a film or pop cultural movement. That podcast was absolutely fascinating for me back then and it still holds up today, but I suppose there’s a reason it doesn’t exist anymore. And, the fact I can actually acknowledge this only really confirms that…
#4 I’m just not prepared to play the game
It’s not just the podcasts that have changed, what’s behind them has too. Podcasting doesn’t belong to people like me anymore, it belongs to the streaming platforms, media companies, podcast networks, marketers and advertisers who have turned it into a revenue stream or adopted it as part of their brand strategy.
The symbiotic relationship many podcasters focus on now isn’t with the listeners, it’s with their sponsors. Just like YouTube, it seems to be that if you don’t monetise what you’re doing, then what’s the point of even doing it? Of course, if your listeners are your sponsors, great, throw them some extra content and ask for a Patreon donation. Everyone wins. But that’s not really what I signed up for. I never really wanted money, I just wanted to create something I was proud of, have people listen to it and maybe start a conversation.
I don’t want to put down anyone who does take money for their show, it makes sense. I have friends with Patreon shows and I subscribe to certain podcasts myself. It’s just that, for me this was always a hobby. Sure, I used a podcast to build an audience for a book (that’s just content marketing), but if I ever had to stop halfway through a recording to say: “Guys, I just want to take a moment to talk to you about how easy it is to build a website with Squarespace,” I think I’d either burst out laughing or just fucking die of shame.
Again, I understand how the sausage is made. I just don’t want to be in the business of making those kinds of sausages. I’m happy that there are butchers in the world who do make those sausages, and I’m even prepared to pay those butchers to eat their sausages as long as they are particularly delicious sausages that I feel are better than the free sausages on offer… wait, I’m losing this thread… Where was I? Oh yeah…
I miss the way podcasting used to be. The fact it was nobodies like me (sorry guys) with a mic and too many opinions, pushing our thoughts out into the world and finding likeminded souls who cared for some reason. I’m sad it’s over, but fuck it, being a podcaster gave me great times, experiences and friends. For that, I’m grateful.
I’m not Josh Widdecombe and I’m sure as shit not Springsteen or Obama. But that’s OK too. I may not have their resources, platform or effortless charm, but what I do have is the smarts to know that audience expectations have changed – and that I have no interest in changing with them.
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that time is precious and shouldn’t be wasted. I’m trying to ‘simplify’ my life these days and stay focused on where I want to be and what I want to spend my time doing (also why I’m off social media… but that’s a different post), so podcasting just feels like something I can let go.
I’m proud of where I took it, but I know now is the time to channel that energy into something else. I can’t quite tell you what that is yet, but I can promise it won’t come with 50% off your first order at Hello Fresh.