I live in one of the most populated places on the planet (London), but when commuting from place to place, I rarely speak to any of these large oceans of strangers. This may seem anti-social, but I’m never alone. While walking amongst millions of strangers, I’m locked into an in-depth intellectual debate, deeply personal biography, or an extremely entertaining lecture. These worlds I immerse myself in are portable, virtual, and my little secret. 

All of this might sound a bit strange, but I’m not the only person with this power. There are millions of people all over the world with the same power and privilege to be captivated by the spoken word of podcasting. 

This week I wandered down a path that has literally changed my life for the better… There is so much that I owe to this special medium of communication. The podcasting industry is an interesting one, with many similarities to the gaming industry in the context of growth and consumer obsession… Which we’ll dive into soon. 

My history with podcasting is a long one, so I’ll keep it brief… I’ve created three podcasts, helped grow three other people’s podcasts, and have obsessively listened to them for five years. My love for reading, exploring new topics, willingness to explore my emotional side, and psychological strength through meditation all originated from podcasts. There’s plenty more I could share, but we’ll leave it here for now. 🙂

A more personalized and intimate future

The interesting thing about podcasting is that it originates from the “spoken word”, which is an art we’ve honed over thousands of years. The most recent manifestation of our love for spoken word was back in the Golden Age of Radio (the 1920s – 1950s) when families would gather around their radios, listening to evening broadcasts for hours on end… Basically like Netflix today. Ha!

Technically podcasting is a similar thing to the radio, it’s just the delivery method is a bit further down the electromagnetic spectrum (see below).  

This small move on the spectrum has some serious impacts on how this form of spoken word is impacting our culture today. It’s enabled us to have our own personal radios, but more importantly, it’s opened us up to a whole new world of creators and storytellers that fit perfectly within our personal preferences. We no longer need to share the radio with our family and listen to a single radio host, we’re able to listen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. 

The history of how podcasting came to be is an interesting one. Most people mark the beginning of podcasting around when Apple announced its support within iTunes in 2005, but the idea of podcasting was established five years before by a man named Tristan Louis. Tristan proposed the idea of this thing called “RSS Feeds”, which is basically the backbone of podcasting today, it’s how all the info moves from point to point. Sticking with this initial incarnation of RSS feeds has given rise to some issues in the podcasting world, but we’ll get to those a little later.

This idea of downloading an audio recording and listening to it on the go is possible now because of this beautiful thing called the internet, the ever-decreasing cost of hardware (e.g. phones), and constantly increasing power (e.g. software/processors). In the podcasting community, Matt Schichter is seen as the father of podcasts, with one of the first well-known podcasts called “The BackStage Pass” released in 2003… but as I mentioned before podcasting didn’t really hit the world’s radar until Apple began to support them in their iTunes store, opening up an entire society to this new form of communication. 

The initial Apple announcement helped bring podcasting to the world at scale, but the actual adoption and steady growth of podcasting didn’t actually take off until 2014. In 2014 Serial a podcasting publisher released a “True Crime Thriller” that became the first podcast to reach 5M downloads in a single month. This moment is when everything changed… 

Where we’re at today

Even with the massive amounts of growth and obsession, most listeners have with their favorite podcasts, this form of communication is still in its infancy. 

Here are some 2019 numbers to put this into context (US-centric, so take this with a grain of salt):

These first two stats are interesting, but not very meaningful because active listeners are what really moves the needle…

  • 70% of people heard of podcasting – Meaning this idea is slowly becoming a part of society’s collective consciousness 
  • 51% of people listened to a podcast, at least once – More than half… 

  • 32% of people listened in the last month
  • 22% of people listened in the last week
    • Weekly listeners consume around 7 podcast episodes per week equaling out to around 6.5 hours 
  • Apple’s iTunes has the majority of the listeners going through their app (63%), but Spotify is quickly taking that market share (10%) with zero plans of slowing down

I know that it looks small, but it seems to me and most of the talking heads around this area that we’re approaching an inflection point (see below). This assumption is not only due to the growth of listeners, but the number of creators, investors, and big tech players jumping into podcasting in a serious way. 

The beauty of this growth is that it’s sticky… Most if not all of my friends that are steady podcast listeners agree that the connection they feel with their favorite podcasters is deeper than any other medium of communication (movies, books, TV shows, blogs, etc.). This intimacy is born out of many hours of listening in a variety of settings (e.g. commute, gym, home, walking, etc.), which brings a kind of companionship that’s hard to find anywhere else

This trust between listener and podcaster is something most companies would kill for because any product or service advertised by the podcaster automatically has a way better chance of being purchased. In the past, many companies struggled to advertise at scale due to the nature of RSS feeds lacking useful data to be tracked… Not being able to show sponsors how effective their “ad dollars” are, is a good recipe for them NOT to invest in podcasting. Luckily, this problem is slowly being chipped away by startups (Midroll & Acast) and bigger tech companies (Spotify & Google). 

While researching the podcasting industry I couldn’t help but see the glaring similarities between podcasting and gaming when it comes to the obsessive user base and lack of monetization… 

They’re both ways under monetized for the amount of growth and obsession each group has (see below)… 

My Crystal Ball… 

We’re going to end this one by looking into the future! 

In 2019 Spotify made three really interesting acquisitions and stated that they’re basically doubling down their resources in this area. The three companies they purchased bring very separate skills but work perfectly when combined. Two of the companies (Gimlet Media & Parcast) are content creation machines, putting out some of the most popular podcasts in the industry, while the third company (Anchor) is sucking up every new podcaster coming into the industry. 

Thanks to a combination of Stratechery and a few other resources, I’ve come to an interesting conclusion (I think) on what Spotify could do for and to the industry… And I’ll break it into two pieces.

  • “Netflixing and Disneyfying” podcast creation: With the purchase of Gimlet Media & Parcast, Spotify is setting itself up to pump out high-quality content at a fast pace. Similar to the magical entertainment machines created inside of Netflix and Disney.
  • “Facebookification” of podcast advertising: As I mentioned before the ability to monetize in this industry is lacking thanks to RSS feeds not being the easiest things to track, but Spotify, as we know, has a massive amount of data on their users… The centralization of both podcasters and listeners into their platform could set them up to be the “go-to” platform for new and existing podcasters. 

By combining everything into a centralized platform that grows in listeners, podcasters, and content I see Spotify turning into one of the main players for the industry. 

Keep in mind that Spotify is not alone, Google has shown interest in the industry re-releasing their Google podcasting app, as well as transcribing as many podcasts as possible… Basically creating an abstracted layer on top of the RSS feeds used today that’s easier to search and discover on. 

A sliver from my list

By now you probably know I’m a fan of podcasts and there’s a good reason for that. Podcasts have improved my life and personal well-being in almost every way possible… intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. 

There’s a long list of shows I listen to, with each show having its place in my heart and mind. This list changes constantly, so think of the below list as a snapshot of time and where my interests are currently. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s wide enough for everyone to get something out of it. 

  • Software Engineering Daily – Tech interviews for my geeks 
  • 80,000 Hours – Existential Risk focused podcast for my future risk-focused friends 
  • The TWIML AI Podcast – All about machine learning and what’s happening in research and industry
  • The Tim Ferriss Show – Long-form interviews with a wide variety of experts in all different areas
  • The Indie Hackers – People turning their side projects into full-time GIGs, usually without external funding 
  • Linear Digressions – All about machine learning
  • StarTalk Radio – All things space
  • A16z Podcast – VCs talking about VC stuff
  • The Kevin Rose Show – Long-form interviews with a variety of experts
  • Naval – A series of very short podcasts where Naval Ravikant is answering a variety of questions in life, business, love, and everything else. 
  • The Knowledge Project – Long-form interviews with a variety of experts
  • The Portal – A podcast where Eric Weinstein tries to shed some light on the intellectual world we’re all so blind to… 
  • The Future of Life Podcast – Existential Risk focused podcast for my future risk-focused friends
  • Exponent – A podcast where Ben Thompson expands on his articles and chats all about the tech industry
  • Joe Rogan – Long-form interviews with a variety of experts
  • Where Should We Begin – A podcast where Esther Perel shares real couples therapy sessions, breaking down why couples thrive or struggle based on their behaviors