The Truest Trend in Podcasting with Nick Hilton - S3E02
Podcaster & producer Nick Hilton shares his take on current podcast industry trends and what they mean for podcasts in the long tail. Is the golden age of podcasting over? Warning! Pessimism ahead.
I’m Jennifer Tribe and this is Supercasters, the show for podcasters who are serious about growing their audience and earning revenue from their content.
OK, so in the last episode with Jeff Vidler we talked about the rosy outlook for podcasting’s long tail and how the data Jeff’s research company collects points to a future where many, many podcasts can not only survive but thrive outside of the Top 100 list.
This week, I’m talking to Nick Hilton, who is the director and co-founder of a small London-based podcast production company called Podot. Nick is also the podcaster behind the acclaimed documentary series The Town That Didn’t Stare and The Town That Knew Too Much, each a deep dive into the quirky history of a UK town.
And let’s just say Nick has a slightly different view of life in the long tail than Jeff. Nick and I start out talking about what it means when the tech heavyweights, like Spotify and Apple, become content creators as well as content distributors. And we end up in a pretty depressing place. Nick’s word. Of course, I don’t dispute Nick’s experience or that it’s tough to make a go at podcasting in 2022. It is hard to grow an audience. We know this.
Where Nick and I disagree, I think, is on whether the top 10,000 list of podcasts is a viable place to make a living.
I would love to know your thoughts on this episode. How does it match up to your experience? Are you feeling optimistic about prospects in the long tail, like Jeff from episode 1 of this season, or more pessimistic like Nick? Tweet us @supercast and let us know.
Let’s do this.
Jennifer Tribe, host: Hey Nick, welcome to Supercasters.
Nick Hilton, guest: Thank you for having me.
Podcast publishing & distribution are increasingly entangled
Jennifer: You recently wrote a really interesting piece published on Medium called the Distributor’s Dilemma, which takes the Joe Rogan Spotify kerfuffle as a starting point for discussing the ways that publishing and distribution are increasingly entangled. And I'll put a link in the show notes, by the way, for anyone who wants to check that out. I want to start with what you mean by that statement. How publishing and distribution are entangled.
Nick: Well, there's this differentiation, I guess, that people make between distributor and publisher, or it's often referred to as publisher versus platform, which I think is maybe a more industry technical term. To me doesn't make as much sense. I think about it as a publisher of the content and a distributor of the content. There's this difference between a publisher like myself and a distributor like Spotify. And the question of whether Spotify has a responsibility for my content if it's distributed on their platform is fraught in and of itself.
Nick: But the Joe Rogan episode, the kerfuffle as you put it, has kind of accentuated that issue, and created this quite unique problem where Spotify has a kind of exclusive relationship with The Joe Rogan Experience and pays out a lot of money for that, $100 million is what was originally quoted but I see recent reports that it could be more like $200 million. So it's a hell of a lot of money to pay for a podcast that you aren't the publisher of. It's a very expensive rights agreement. That's what Spotify are arguing because obviously Joe Rogan has come under the microscope in recent weeks for this question of to what extent he entertains the thoughts of anti-vaxxers and whether he does or does not scrutinize opinions that are kind of wacky, let's say.
Nick: I mean, that's kind of the issue, and I'm sort of trying to disentangle it because I think it's important that we kind of work out who is responsible for what content, especially in an industry like podcasting, which is very global, very decentralized, doesn't have regulators in the same way that other parts of the media have, certainly in this country, in the UK. And yeah, I think it's just an interesting case study for what will, I think, be an ongoing question and it's a question we see time and time again.
Tech is where the money is
Jennifer: You talk in the article about how the lines are getting blurred increasingly right, so you put it, tech is obsessed with content creation. We see that obviously with Netflix, Amazon. Not only are they distributing content, but now they're getting into developing content, they're creating originals, they're buying the rights to content. But you also mentioned that content creators have become obsessed with tech. What do you mean by that?
Nick: Well, content creators becoming obsessed with tech. It's quite a personal thing in the sense that I, here in London, meet a lot of people who are running podcast companies. Almost everyone I speak to about this seems to be thinking about, Oh yeah, I'm making X podcasts but I'm also thinking about developing a new app to change the listening experience. Or I'm doing something different with distribution or I'm working on tools to help creators and that sort of thing. If you're running a content-only business in 2022, it's relatively hand-to-mouth still. For all the Call Me Daddys and Gimlets and people who've been bought for tens of millions of dollars, most content creators are working very slim margins, and that's people who can make it pay. At the same time, podcasting seems flush with money because you see these hundreds of million dollar acquisitions of quite niche pieces of tech. And we've seen more acquisitions in the last week.
Spotify is doing almost all the buying, but various other players have done buying and even here in the UK relatively small players are making kind of tech acquisitions. So I can see why if you were in content creation, you would be like, actually, the thing that's going to pay long term is tech, because that's just the way the market looks. But it's kind of curious to me because all the biggest tech companies are investing really heavily in content, and it just feels like two people who just have completely different mindsets. And if those could just be reconciled, then maybe we would save everyone a lot of money and a lot of stress. But instead Spotify wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a few properties and that's their prerogative.
Jennifer: Yeah, it's interesting that content creators or at least the ones that you're interacting with are thinking that the way to make money is to build a piece of tech that gets acquired versus build a piece of content that gets acquired. I guess those content deals are few and far between and as as you point out, Spotify is really looking for those mega-hits versus cultivating the smaller podcasts, but you draw attention to that issue as well in another article called Is Podcasting Broken, which was in response to the Bloomberg article by Lucas Shaw that said there hadn't been any new hits in podcasting for years and and I wanted to dig into this as well. So one of the questions that you pose is can content survive and be amplified without being owned. What do you think the answer to that question is?
Can content survive without being owned?
Nick: I think that podcasting is in a place where I'm quite worried about it, because I think that the ability of podcasting to sort of self generate success, which has been such a kind of foundational part of what the industry is, and it's been a reason why podcasting has gone from this countercultural medium to an industry where there's a lot of money is because it has this sense of in the last 15 years maybe being the best place where you can get these independent voices outside of the mainstream to cut through. And that's kind of been the reason for its success. But it's also becoming an increasing challenge for content creators.
And I think that big tech, as it becomes more interested in podcasting, and it is necessarily a cyclical thing because Big Tech is interested in it because it is doing well and it's doing well because it is countercultural. But the minute Big Tech comes in it does less well. It creates this cycle. The fact that Joe Rogan, who was a comedian, comedian in inverted commas, martial arts presenter or whatever who went into podcasting because it was like an expeditious way for him to get his voice out there. He wanted to do something that he could do essentially out of his garage. Someone like Marc Maron is probably a very similar one on a slightly different side of the political spectrum. That was what podcasting was.
And now The Joe Rogan Experience is a $200 million podcast, which is essentially owned although they do not think this, it is exclusively distributed by a billion dollar tech company. It's a completely different kettle of fish. And do I think that the conditions exist currently for the next Joe Rogan to come about? I don't. I think that things have changed. The market is so oversaturated. Every tech company that distributes podcasts now has a dog in the fight. I see now Apple on today, this is for the first time I've seen this. I went on the Apple front page and I saw, not the new and noteworthy bar at the top, which has always been there for as long as I can remember. But subscriber favorites at the top. So I can see that Apple is already pushing its subscription model. They're going to prioritize product that makes them money as you'd expect them to do. Spotify the same. They prioritize Spotify Originals deal and other podcasts that have exclusivity deals or exclusivity windows with Spotify.
They've got a dog in this fight now. So it's not this open ecosystem. There are still apps that have an open ecosystem, but they're so minor. I mean, it really doesn't matter what anyone does if Spotify and Apple decide that they want to use podcasting as a kind of personal project. So, yeah, I don't see how if I were someone who wanted to become a podcaster, who wanted to be a professional podcaster, wanted to have a Joe Rogan-esque chat show, even if I had a moderate audience and let's say I had 50,000 Twitter followers, I don't really see how unless I played the game with distributors and publishers, I don't see how I get my podcast to cut through in 2022.
You should be able to make a living from 10,000 episodes per download
Jennifer: I think, well, there is a long tail in podcasting obviously. The top 10, the top 25, the ones that Lucas Shaw is talking about, the ones that we've been talking about, those are like the elite of the elite, right? Like the top one percent of podcasts. And then of course, you've got the bottom end, which is the vast majority of podcasts that are like 10 listens per episode, 100 listens per episode. But I think you have a really interesting section near the top that are more niche podcasts perhaps, they're 10,000 downloads per episode, 50,000 downloads per episode and wondering if that is not considered a success. Like, do you think that that is a failure or that that hasn't broken through, as you say. Like to me, 50000 downloads has broken through.
Nick: Yeah, I mean, look, it's not by any metric a failure. However niche or not niche your podcast is, if you're getting 10,000 downloads, not only is it not a failure, but you should be able to make a living from that. 10,000 listeners should be enough to support a salary in my opinion. The fact that it often isn't, you know, I'm not saying that some people can't make it work financially on those sorts of listener figures. But by and large, they can't. Acast and Audioboom, who are the big ad sales agents here in the UK, they would anticipate a best case scenario of about a $30 CPM, so $30 for every thousand listeners. Thirty times 10. That's $300 per episode. After all your costs, it's not realistically going to be enough for someone to live on if they're hosting and producing it themselves, let alone if they have even the smallest possible team, so the industry is sort of broken at the moment for people in this kind of very large middle.
It's particularly depressing for people here in the UK because our listening figures are just much smaller than the US. But we're still judged to the standards of the US because that's just the way the cookie crumbles. I think that 10,000 listeners should be considered a great success, should be liveable, and the fact that it isn't is symptomatic of a degree of brokenness in the system. But yes, those top ones that the Bloomberg article points out, obviously there are going to be blockbuster podcasts. They're always going to be huge TV shows, huge radio shows, huge movies, huge podcasts, whatever. Doesn't matter. It shouldn't really matter what they're doing. That article doesn't go into the kind of the question of then, you know, what about the not the next 100, but the next 10,000 podcasts? Because the next 10,000 podcasts are probably all relatively well listened to. But does the support structure exist for them to make it in this world? And I don't think it does. I get that Supercast and indeed, actually lots of similar companies are trying to do that, trying to make it more direct and not make people relied on ad sales because obviously no one could really be reliant on ad sales. It's 2022. If you rely on ad sales, good luck to you. But yeah, it's a really troubled question, a really fraught question.
What can the industry do to help indie podcasters?
Jennifer: What would you like to see happen in the next year or two to start to address some of those issues of brokenness?
Nick: I think it's a challenge because a lot of the things that you could do to best address it in terms of supporting medium-sized podcasts and even small podcasters would run contrary to basically the business imperatives of major tech companies. So I don't expect that to happen. Here in the UK, for instance, I'd like to see the BBC take a more proactive stance in terms of supporting and nurturing and nourishing the careers of independent podcasters, young podcasters and that sort of thing, rather than simply entering what is a kind of existential bunfight for who has the most celebrity podcasts, who has the biggest celebrities hosting podcasts on their platforms. Publicly funded broadcasters and I guess to some extent NPR has a different funding model, but they serve a similar purpose in the US. There’s huge scope for these people to see themselves more as places to develop podcasts and to bring podcasts out of the wilderness of independent publishing into the nourishing, nurturing bosom of a well-funded, publicly minded broadcaster.
Other than that, Apple and Spotify can obviously put aside to some extent their business imperatives and say, Look, we think it's really, really important that podcasting continues to be independent, grassroots, countercultural, and we are going to celebrate that more in the way we curate things. I'm always amazed by how effective the Apple home page is as a curation tool. Anyone who's been featured on Apple knows that it makes a really serious difference. I can't imagine being a podcast listener who goes on the Apple Store and just browses and sees Oh, you know, that looks interesting. That would never be my path of discovery. But my God, it works. And yeah, they could be more proactive with that. I know they've tried to do things like, for instance, Black History Month and Black Lives Matters kind of curated playlist to bring voices from underrepresented communities into that, kind of put a focus on them. But they could do that a lot more. And I hope that they continue to do that because there will be plenty of voices from underrepresented communities who choose to use the Apple Podcasts subscription mechanism.
It's just a case of whether they're also willing to champion and celebrate the work of people who are not using their subscription mechanics. But again, it goes against every business principle and the same for Spotify, especially as they expand subscriptions for podcasts. And I think again, it's part of the reason why Lucas Shaw is depressed about podcasting and part of the reason I'm depressed about podcasting is I just don't think these things will happen because the business imperatives are so much in the other direction. One major tech company eggs on the next major tech company and Apple is having to compete, keep up with Spotify. That imperative is very strong.
Struggles in the long tail
Jennifer: I do wonder, because I think I share your perspective on the industry in terms of what is happening. But I don't share the pessimism. That mid-tier I think there's a lot of good stuff happening and I wonder if they can continue to exist regardless of what's happening in the upper reaches of Mount Olympus with, you know, the Call Me Daddys. If there is a space for them to exist as they are and make a living, combining multiple revenue streams, finding niche audiences through other means and using the platforms as they can as a springboard and wondering where your pessimism comes from versus optimism.
Nick: I'd like to be optimistic, but my pessimism comes from the fact that I run a very small little company in London and all of the best projects that I've worked on and I'm continuing to work on, I find it really hard to fund them. I find it really hard to sell them. All of that. And the reason I can make a living in podcasting is because I'm willing to do corporate podcasts where they have very kind of low stakes KPIs and pay quite well. If I didn't do that then I wouldn't be able to make a living. I wouldn't be able to make a living on the podcast that I'm proud of alone. We're talking about shows that are relatively successful. Not again, not Call Me Daddy, but we're talking tens if not more of thousands of listeners, I just couldn't make it work and that does worry me as an anecdotal experience.
The US market is more mature. I don't dispute that, and I think that sales are more mature in the US too. But equally, do I believe that these people can… I mean, when you talk about multiple funding models, it just gets to a point where… the act of creation is in and of itself is complicated and making good podcasts should be creatively complex and exciting. The act of funding these things is even more complex, more exciting, more dynamic. If you're having to constantly beg people to go sign up to your Patreon and then also you're running programmatic adverts and also you've got a limited subscription series on Supercast. And it's just all of these things just to kind of scrabble together enough money to make a podcast and try and make it good enough. And then also, you have to take your child to nursery and pay for your supermarket. The whole thing is so complicated.
And that's why you end up with, yeah, some people will make that work. But then you've just got such a huge advantage if you're a production company that gets a budget from Spotify and you can bring producers in who don't have to worry about flogging their Patreon or their Supercast subscription. They just do the work that they want to do, the good complex, interesting work. And then someone in that company has the relationship with Spotify and Spotify handles the distribution and you know it's going on Spotify. You know it's going to get a million listeners because Spotify will place it front page on the US podcast for six months. And the scrabble is so much less complicated. I guess that's why I'm not optimistic about it. That is only going to get worse. That's only going to be exacerbated if current trends continue. And it's just not conducive to the making of good podcasts, I think.
What makes a “good” podcast?
Jennifer: What is your definition of good?
Nick: Gosh, well, everyone's definition of good is different and my definition would be very specific and it would be as close as possible to a podcast that I would actually make as I could get away with. It's different for everyone. But I think that good podcasts add something to the general conversation. Whether that's like being informative or whether that's being kind of necessarily curious or whether it's debating issues. There are all sorts of ways in which you can add something to the conversation. I think they should try and add something new, but it doesn't matter if they don't, if they are a good synthesis or good digest of things that are not new.
It's easier for me to say what I don't think is good. Things that are made for cheap expediency, I think, tend not to be very good. Celebrities interviewing other celebrities, comedians interviewing other comedians. Products where the market is already providing plenty of that content don't do it for me. In the documentary format, which is a format that I love in terms of podcasts, I think documentaries that don't provide any new or original research and kind of just rehash other people's research, don't really do it for me, even though it's a very cheap way of making documentaries. And then, yeah, no podcast over an hour long I think is good. I appreciate that Joe Rogan feels differently, and I gather that his listeners feel differently. There are lots of these things that I think are good and bad, and it's totally subjective. But when I refer to good podcasts, what I mean is something that is interesting, innovative, new, presents a different perspective, brings new ideas to the table, does interesting investigations or research. And just generally adds that sort of kinetic dynamism that the very best podcasts had in the golden age of podcasts. And I present that in stark contrast to the absolutely infinite number of podcasts hosted by former reality TV shows interviewing other former reality TV show stars.
Jennifer: Interestingly, you haven't mentioned production quality like editing, sound design. Are those factors at all for you?
Nick: Yeah, I always say this kind of baseline that I expect from a podcast. And if it doesn't meet that, then I can't take it seriously. But far more podcasts are hitting that kind of minimum mark. And I try not to excessively penalize podcasts for instance, for having limited sound design because the reality is sound design it's really expensive and original music composition is really expensive. But yeah, everyone expects a decent amount of sound quality. So yeah, I want it to sound good enough that I'm not distracted by the sound quality of it. Some people are really, really like technically invested in the medium and come from a sound design or music background and are producers and mixers and designers in that sense. That's not me. I come from a journalistic background, and therefore I am much more interested in the story and the ideas and how well they're written and presented than I am in the technical aspects.
Do big deals come with too many trade-offs?
Jennifer: I can definitely understand the appeal of a deal from a platform where they give you a production team, they take care of ad sales, they take care of distribution. And really, you can just focus on your content creation, like you said. There are trade-offs with that, of course, as we're discovering and wonder how you think about those trade-offs in terms of taking a deal. Like how much control you have over what ads are run or what you can say or not say, what ownership you have over back catalog, over spin-off products? Wondering your thoughts on those?
Nick: Look, I think that you can have some control of the ads if you sign the deal correctly and you want to exclude certain types of advertising, I think that's fine. Ultimately, that's part of the deal you have when you go to work as a broadcaster in exchange for money that you know, these adverts that exist as sort of alien products. In terms of all the other trade offs, I mean, more editorial oversight is almost always a good thing for a product. Almost all the podcasts that I've made independently would have benefited from the wisdom and expertise of a bigger production team. They would have probably benefited from the audience-facing expertise of the distributor. I certainly don't think that independent publishers should be shy or scared of the process of having more oversight. The reality is it almost always leads to better product, though there will be trade-offs, there'll be some things that are really idiosyncratic or really cutting edge or even a bit risque where the edges are sanded down. But if you want to take something like that to mass market, you probably do need to sand down those edges.
And then in terms of IP shares, back catalog and that sort of thing, you're a content creator, if you're signing a deal with a publisher or a distributor you can negotiate these things and you can take some responsibility of your own destiny. This is a serious business. Even if we're not talking about multimillion dollar deals, even if we're just talking about very, very small deals, you still have the ability to consult a lawyer on these issues. Look, IP is one of the most valuable properties in this game. You don't sell it off cheaply and you hold onto it as best you can. But IP is worth nothing if no one listens to the podcast. That's the reality. A Spotify podcast has an infinitely better chance of getting the audience required to be adapted into an Amazon television series than a podcast that you make on your own out of your living room and which 200 people listen to.
If you want to be a big podcaster…
Jennifer: Parting thoughts for an independent podcaster who's currently in that mid tail for the next 12 months?
Nick: There's only so much that the independent podcasters themselves can actually do. And I think a lot of the onus and pressure is put on them to sort of divine their own destiny, even when it's not necessarily possible. So for to to to some extent, I would say to that podcaster take some of the pressure off yourself because there are such structural powers at play here that it's not even luck, really, whether you do or don't do well, it's whether you can miraculously beat the kind of systemic issues that are going to keep you down. What would I say to them? I would say to them, if your goal is to reach a bigger audience or is to make sure your podcast is financially stable, then yeah, you will need to be open to the idea of working with publishers and distributors. The market is homogenizing around Big Tech and other mega publishers and if that's your kind of ambition, then that's your ambition.
I think that if you want to host the biggest podcast in the world, right? If your ambition was to say in five years time, I want to be the host of the biggest new launch of 2027, and you are someone in their 20s and tangentially involved in podcasting, I would say, go off and I don't know, become a comedian. If you're not funny, go off and become a war reporter and like, win a Pulitzer Prize. The thing is at the moment, starting your own podcast, being a podcaster, is not the most expeditious route to being a successful podcaster. The most successful podcasters got there because they did something else first. And I think that that trend is only getting more and more pronounced. So if you're right now thinking about big, launching your own podcast and you want to make it a guaranteed success, go off and become really successful or famous doing something else first and then launch your podcast. I think that that is one of the truest trends that I've seen, and it's really depressing. And I think the age of the podcaster might be over. It might just be over. The idea of being someone who got famous as a podcaster. I guess someone like Alex Cooper is maybe the last person. I don't see it happening any more. But maybe I'm wrong.
Jennifer: Really appreciate your insights. Nick, thanks so much for joining us today.
Nick: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
Jennifer: That was Nick Hilton, head of production company Poddo and creator of the podcasts The Town That Didn’t Stare and The Town That Knew Too Much. For a full transcript of this episode, including links to Nick’s articles that we discuss, go to supercast.com/podcast
I asked this question at the top of the episode, and I’ll ask it again now that you’ve heard Nick’s view on what it’s like in the long tail. How are things looking for you? Are you feeling optimistic about your growth potential or a little bummed about how hard it is? Tweet us @supercast and let us know you’re listening and what your thoughts are for this episode.
Remember you can also join the conversation in the Supercasters Premium community where we do things like work to support each other through rough patches and help each other succeed. It is absolutely free and by becoming a Premium member, you also get access to a whole bunch of bonus content to help you grow your audience and your revenue. To become a Premium subscriber, go to premium.supercast.com and click the signup link. I will see you in there.
Until next time, I’m Jennifer Tribe. Thanks for listening.
- The Distributor’s Dilemma (Nick Hilton)
- Is Podcasting Broken? (Nick Hilton)
- Podcasting Hasn’t Produced A New Hit in Years (Lucas Shaw)
- Nick Hilton (Twitter)
- The Town That Didn’t Stare (podcast)
- The Town That Knew Too Much (podcast)