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Podcasts are in the middle of a numbers and people crisis

In the podcasting world, the year 2019 may seem like it happened in a parallel universe. Vulture’s Nicholas Quah deemed it the beginning of the “big podcasting era,” pointing to the millions of dollars that Spotify invested in building out its podcast operation — and the expected domino effect as other companies follow suit. “There was podcasting before 2019, and there will be podcasting after 2019. What podcasting will look like in 2024 remains very much up for grabs,” wrote Quah. 

And although 2024’s outlook still isn’t entirely certain, it’s pretty obvious that the golden years are over. There were a staggering number of layoffs in podcasting and the audio world at large this year, hitting every entity from public radio to subscription-based outlets to the corporate behemoths. Spotify went through three separate layoffs this year, laying off 2,300 people in total, including a sizable chunk of Spotify’s podcast workforce and executives. The company is now almost a third (27.5 percent) smaller than the 8,300-plus workforce it was only a year ago. The Swedish audio giant also killed off and absorbed the podcast companies it bought for nearly $400 million in 2019 (the podcast studios Gimlet and Parcast, and the hosting platform Anchor). SiriusXM laid off 475 employees across all divisions and sunset Stitcher, the podcast app it bought for $325 million in 2020. There were podcast job cuts at CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Malcom Gladwell’s podcast studio Pushkin Industries, Vox Media (The Verge’s parent company), The Athletic, ESPN, TWiT, Sony Music, Barstool Sports, Futuro Media, Marvel Entertainment, PRX, iHeartMedia, and others. 

The same public radio institutions that leaned into podcasts as a way to reach younger, more diverse audiences spent 2023 trimming their podcast divisions and canceling shows. NPR cut 10 percent of its workforce in order to make up for a $30 million gap in its budget, and it stopped production on Invisibilia, Louder than a Riot, Rough Translation, and Everyone & Their Mom. WNYC laid off 6 percent of its staff, with most cuts impacting their podcast vertical. It also canceled the podcasts More Perfect and La Brega, and gave the nearly decade-old podcast Death, Sex & Money until the end of the year to find a new home or source of funding. Southern California Public Radio, which owns the radio station LAist, eliminated 21 staff positions. 

Perplexingly enough, all these cuts are happening at a time where both podcast ad revenue and podcast listenership are growing steadily. Moving forward, the podcast industry will have to continue to grow — with a much smaller workforce.  

2024: the year of better analytics?

2024 is also the year that the podcast industry may come to a reckoning about its metrics. The worst kept secret in podcasting is that podcast analytics kind of suck and are confusing. To make things worse, no one really 100 percent trusts listener stats — from the advertisers to the agents to the podcast creators themselves. Data like the number of downloads for your podcast, where your listeners are coming from, their podcast player of choice, and their demographics are nice to have for advertisers — but are also scattered across multiple hosting platforms. 

In other words, the data that Apple Podcasts shows you is slightly different than what Spotify shows you, which is different from all the other hosting platforms. As a consequence, measuring a podcast’s performance remains tedious and complicated, even in 2023. 

But two big changes that happened this year could make podcast data less murky in 2024. 

No more automatic downloads

With the release of iOS 17, Apple Podcasts no longer automatically downloads new episodes if you don’t play a podcast for the past 15 days — or if you’re running low on storage. And once you return to the podcast, Apple Podcasts won’t download the old episodes you missed — although automatic downloads will resume. 

This could lead to overall download numbers dipping for most podcasts — but that’s actually a good thing. Download numbers have always been a key measure of a podcast’s popularity, but because (prior to iOS 17) Apple Podcasts automatically downloaded episodes of subscribed podcasts (even if listeners had long stopped tuning in), it became clear to many in the industry that these numbers were inflated. 

It’s too soon to tell how big of an impact iOS 17 will make on overall download numbers (the change rolled out in mid-September), but as my colleague Ariel Shapiro points out, this will lead to more accuracy in measurement — which advertisers like. 

No more data from Spotify Ad Analytics

Another major development in podcast analytics happened this summer in Sweden — and for the most part, went unreported. Acast, the world’s largest independent podcast hosting company, (and which, like Spotify, is based in Stockholm) quietly announced it would no longer accept data from Spotify Ad Analytics. 

In Acast’s view, the fact that Spotify both sells podcast ads and then measures the effectiveness of those ad campaigns — rather than relying on a third party — is a recipe for disaster. When Spotify acquired the major podcast analytics companies Podsights and Chartable in 2022, most of the tech press considered it a smart move that would bring Spotify closer to its goal of becoming the world’s largest audio giant. The idea that such purchases could be a conflict of interest for Spotify didn’t seem obvious — but it caused a stir within the podcast industry. 

“This isn’t a knee-jerk decision from Acast,” said CEO Ross Adams in an episode of the Podnews Weekly Review podcast, about the company’s decision to cut ties with Spotify’s ad platform. “It’s something we’ve been working on for quite a while. We work with thousands and hundreds of advertisers and agencies daily across the globe and through data we make informed decisions, and this is something that has been spoken to us about by different brands, especially when Podsights and Chartable got bought across over to Spotify — now Spotify Analytics.”

Unsurprisingly, Spotify criticized the move by Acast, arguing that it would negatively impact transparency across the board. “Acast’s decision to limit campaign insights, reach and performance will negatively impact advertisers, publishers, and creators, hurting the openness of the ecosystem and creating a downstream impact on their bottom line,” a Spotify spokesperson told PodPod

Both of these events — Apple moving away from auto downloads and Acast cutting ties with Spotify Ad Analytics — signal to me that a change is brewing. As podcasting becomes more corporate and professionalized, advertisers will demand more transparency and accountability. The podcast industry will be forced to step up by giving advertisers more sophisticated, accurate data. But some brands still may not like what they see and go for other forms of digital advertising with a bigger reach. 

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