I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Why podcasts are suddenly “back”

Did you hear? Podcasts were dead, and now they’re back!

This story is suddenly everywhere. It’s not extremely accurate, but I’ll take it.

*    *    *

In early 2013, a New York Times reporter contacted me to ask about the town I live in, Hastings on Hudson, a small suburb about 10 miles north of Manhattan.

We had a long phone call, about an hour, but it was strange from the outset. He kept asking if I had seen a trend of lots of hipsters moving up from Brooklyn to Hastings, and I kept telling him that I had seen absolutely no evidence of such a trend.

He kept pushing, wanting so badly for that story to be there, but it wasn’t. He thought Hastings was becoming the new Williamsburg or Portland and was digging for evidence to support that, ignoring anything to the contrary. It seemed that a couple of his friends had moved here, or were considering it, so he assumed it was a trend, and wasn’t interested in my statements to the contrary as someone who actually lives here.

Almost every time I’ve talked to a reporter has gone this way: they had already decided the narrative beforehand. I’m never being asked for information — I’m being used for quotes to back up their predetermined story, regardless of whether it’s true. (Consider this when you read the news.) Misquotes usually aren’t mistakes — they’re edited, consciously or not, to say what the reporter needs them to say.

Talking to reporters is like talking to the police: ideally, don’t. You have little to gain and a lot to lose, their incentives often conflict with yours, and they have all of the power.1

The New York Times story about my town ran with the ridiculous headline, Creating Hipsturbia.

I didn’t even recognize the description, filled with exaggerations and outright falsehoods, as my town. The hipster caricatures were exaggerated at best. Nowhere in town serves shade-grown coffee and I’ve never seen a novelist with sideburns drinking it. The bird silhouettes on the bakery window, easily verifiable, have never existed and were completely fabricated. The reporter used none of the information from our hour-long phone call except a fluffy quote about deer in my yard,2 since the rest of it contradicted his narrative.

I don’t know anyone in Hastings who read that article and didn’t find it comically inaccurate. Wherever this allegedly booming hipster paradise was, it sure wasn’t in Hastings.

But feature articles about hipsters in the Sunday print and online editions of the New York Times reach a lot of people.

And a crazy thing happened over the last year. A larger-than-usual number of young families from the city have been moving here. Hastings real estate is unusually hot, with prices significantly up for the year and many houses being sold in only a few days, often with multiple bidders pushing them above the asking price. Two realtor friends have told us that a lot of this new interest came from that article.

The article, which was mostly bullshit, is slowly making itself more true. And our town is doing very well from it.

*    *    *

The story of podcasts suddenly being “back” strongly suggests, and mostly requires, that they had been big at one time and had since gone away. That New York Magazine article even cites a “bottom” time: 2010. But that never really happened.

Podcasts in 2010 were a lot like podcasts in 2007, which were a lot like podcasts in 2004, which are a lot like podcasts in 2014. There’s a lot of tech shows (and a lot of tech listeners), but most of the biggest are professionally produced public-radio shows released as podcasts, with other strong contingents in comedy, business, and religion, followed by a huge long tail of special interests with small but passionate audiences.

What’s apparent from most of the recent podcast stories is that most of their reporters have talked to very few sources and either don’t listen to podcasts themselves or have just started. Most podcast listeners and producers know that the truth is much less interesting: podcasts started out as a niche interest almost a decade ago and have been growing slowly and steadily since. Over many years, growing slowly and steadily adds up.

Smartphone podcast apps and Bluetooth audio in cars have both helped substantially, but both have also been slow, steady progressions that are nowhere near complete. No smartphone app has caused a massive number of new listeners to suddenly flood to podcasts, and people don’t upgrade their cars frequently enough for any automotive media features to cause market booms. A lot of people still listen to podcasts in iTunes, and a lot of cars still don’t have Bluetooth audio. We’ll get there, but it takes a while.

The most likely explanation of these “Podcasts are back!” stories is threefold:

  1. Serial, an offshoot of This American Life, got a ton of listeners quickly. But This American Life has been the biggest podcast in the world for most of the last decade, so a heavily promoted offshoot becoming very popular doesn’t indicate much about the market as a whole.
  2. Gimlet Media, a podcast production startup, just raised a bunch of money from investors,3 publicized by their very popular StartUp podcast. StartUp became popular quickly not only because it’s very good, but also because it was started by a very well-known producer of very popular podcasts, including This American Life and Planet Money. Again, not a strong indicator of the overall market.
  3. Midroll, a big podcast ad broker, talks to the press a lot and has grown well recently. Selling podcast ads is a pain in the ass, producers love the idea of someone else taking care of it, there are very few ad brokers, and Midroll is probably the biggest. But that doesn’t mean there are suddenly far more listeners — it’s just easier to put ads in shows.4

The money and raw numbers have finally gotten investors to pay attention, and investors have a lot of press influence. But podcasts have never exploded and have never died. The truth is that they’ve grown boringly and steadily for almost a decade, and will likely continue to do so. And that’s great!

But what if the hype around these stories builds on itself and starts making itself true, like that terrible profile of my town? Then podcast growth actually might explode.

And that’s even better.

  1. I almost behaved wisely in September when I was interviewed by a WSJ writer, allegedly about people who choose to work at home and what working at home is like in our tech community. I thought appearing in the WSJ may have passing value to Overcast, so I agreed to talk.

    But after a long phone call about working at home and the indie Apple business, the reporter kept requesting photos of my office, possessions, and the rest of my house, and kept asking probing questions about the house’s size and layout. I realized that this had nothing to do with actual work, so I bailed out. That turned out to be the right decision. But ideally, I wouldn’t have even taken the first call. ↩︎

  2. Even my “quote” isn’t exactly what I said, but it was close and harmless enough that it wasn’t worth the risk of a correction when they fact-checked it with me. I can’t see the George Washington Bridge from my house, but I could in a previous apartment. ↩︎

  3. Including me. ↩︎

  4. Midroll previously sold our podcast’s ads. If you’ve recently heard a bunch of podcast hosts asking you to take a demographic advertising survey for a chance to win a $100 Amazon gift card, those are Midroll shows — and a big reason we’re not anymore. ↩︎