There’s a common joke in my rarefied circles these days that not only does everyone have a podcast, but everyone has at least one half-baked podcast idea. My Favorite Murder, except it’s My Favorite Deals from the Grocery Store I Live Above. Two Dope Queens, except Two People Who Suck. The Joe Rogan Experience, except it’s hosted by a dad in a garage (which, now that I think about it, might just be Marc Maron’s podcast). Everyone wants to become a podcaster because it’s easy (most of the time, it’s literally just talking), and because podcasting is a lucrative business: the industry is expected to generate $600 million this year (which is to say nothing of the thousands of dollars a popular, fan-funded podcast such as Chapo Trap House or Cum Town nets monthly via Patreon). While the concept of podcasting might not be especially groundbreaking, the tasks involved with building, maintaining, and monetizing an audience makes the format more akin to online media (extremely broken) than traditional radio broadcasting (still doing ok). Here, I’m going to focus on the online media-ish ad-based model of podcasting revenue, which makes podcast-listening free, and therefore more sinister.
When I listen to podcasts, I find myself thinking more about the ads than the actual content of what I’m listening to. It’s not impossible to skip through podcast ads, but it doesn't really behoove you. At about 30 seconds to a minute, it makes more sense to let the advertisements wash over you, especially if you’re multitasking — applying makeup to The Daily, washing dishes to a true crime podcast, etc. Plus, your fingers might be covered with dish soap suds, concealer, or tucked into the warm enclave of an unexposed pocket. Not good for fast-forwarding.
But podcast ads are different than ads horned into other types of media. An advertising break in a television show, streaming or live, creates a boundary between the show and the advertisers. Podcast ads are seamless, read by a host after segueing away from the main feature, and are usually a product or service they’ve recently tried and (surprise!) happen to honestly love (because they’re getting paid to say so). Sometimes a podcast will break for a pre-recorded ad that takes the form of a little skit with the host and maybe some other people they work with having a spontaneous-seeming interaction in which one recommends the product or service to another. It’s all very “natural.”
Podcast ads are perhaps most similar to YouTube sponsored videos, in which an influencer will pause to shout out a sponsor and explain what the company does. But on a podcast, such ads are more intimate
There have been a few noteworthy ad reads that have caught my attention. While listening to Robert Evans’s (consistently very good!) Behind the Bastards episode on the opioid-crisis causing monsters the Sacklers, Evans delved into the family’s attempts to advertise opiates to a wider audience, one might hear an ad for Hims, the direct-to-consumer startup that streamlines prescription-drug access by putting it on the internet (notably, Hims offers a generic version of Viagra or, as Evans refers to them in the ads he begrudgingly reads, “dick pills”). So it’s somewhat ironic that one of the main takeaways of the episode is that the Sacklers successfully worked to transform what could have remained a niche prescription drug into an easily accessible pharmaceutical.
I genuinely enjoy listening to Stephanie Wittels Wachs’s Last Day podcast, which delves into the opiate epidemic through a few different lenses: by following an afflicted person’s last day of life, soliciting input from medical professionals, and hearing from those the deceased have left behind. It’s a good podcast with noble intentions, well-produced and responsible with its content. Confusing, then, are the somewhat awkward ad breaks. Whereas Evans has made his show’s bumpy transitions a recurring theme — making even new listeners aware that he’s uncomfortable with the premise of him reading ads at all — Wittels Wachs tries to make the process more seamless. The particular ads that have given me pause have been for wellness services (a meal-kit delivery service with healthy options, organic tampons, or the sponsor of the entire series, a vitamin and supplement company). To my ear, it sometimes sounds that Wittels Wachs is implying that these things could be of use to struggling listeners, something to help get their life in order.
Podcast ads are perhaps most similar to YouTube sponsored videos, in which an influencer will pause to shout out a sponsor and explain what the company does. But on a podcast, such ads are more intimate; listening to a podcast often literally involves letting another person into your ears, and it becomes easier for what we hear to spill over into our daily lives.
Apparently, this effect is a boon to advertisers. According to Spotify, “41 percent of listeners say they trust ads more if they hear them in a podcast and 81 percent report having taken action after hearing a podcast ad;” the streaming giant attributes this (suspiciously) high success rate to the fact that podcasts are a “uniquely powerful and intimate medium.” Spotify is making moves to redesign podcast advertising, and streaming from their app makes it impossible to skip the ads, whether during an episode of a New York Times show or It’s Going Down, a “revolutionary anarchist, anti-fascist, and autonomous anti-capitalist” podcast. The company is also developing personalized automated advertising that would generate content for a user based on algorithmic research, and in its increasing pursuit to control all recorded sounds, is in “early talks” to purchase The Ringer, the popular sports and culture website that happens to have 30 wildly popular sports and culture podcasts. (Spotify, if you’re reading this, please do not buy The Ringer and proceed to fire its entire editorial staff. Thanks!)
This is our public response to reports that Spotify is in talks to purchase The Ringer: pic.twitter.com/fLnGtBK8aJ— Ringer Union (@RingerUnion) January 21, 2020
Look, I’m not naive. Advertising is not always evil, and it remains necessary for our favorite cultural products to remain alive. But can advertising ever be … not gross? Is the fact that an investigation into the nation’s failing mental health infrastructure punctuated by an ad for a text-message therapy service proof that the structure is working as intended? Should I be grateful that these ads serve as reminders that the content I am consuming has its own agenda, like when NPR presents a story on Amazon’s horrific workplace culture and then reminds me that Amazon is a supporter of the station?
Like everything, this all leads back to one thing for me: the infamous, misguided “pivot to video” directive that cratered so much online media in the last decade. My friends, my family, my loved ones have all requested that I (A) stop taking jobs that pivot to video, (B) stop losing my jobs in pivots to video, and (C) stop trying to explain to them what a “pivot to video” actually is. What I’m trying to say is that a bunch of websites laid off their writers so they could make more videos because Facebook said videos make more money (on Facebook), only to discover that Facebook had misled them. The correlation of skyrocketing Facebook metrics — which brands used to host video instead of their own websites, likely at the behest of Facebook and their incentives and rewards for using the service — and the resultant and problematic data hit journalism hard, and audiences (especially, in [clears throat] Trump’s America, in which trustworthy reporting is [insufferably closes eyes] more important than ever) lost many sources of news and cultural criticism.
Perhaps it is only a matter of time until we discover that streamlined podcast ads are similarly misleading their corporate customers and the bottom drops out of the entire industry. After that, maybe we’ll all get really into monetizing Twitch.