“The crowded market has made almost everything in the business more difficult. There’s only so much real estate… [and] That congestion has also widened the gap between incumbents and outsiders.”
—Vulture, September 2022
As a small-time podcaster, I’m always looking for ways to connect with listeners and build a grassroots following. But years of trying fruitlessly to compete with the giants in the space have led me to a reluctant conclusion: the podcast landscape is just too hostile for an independent show that’s just 45 minutes of dolphin noises to break out.
It wasn’t always like this. Back when Serial debuted in 2014, there were only 20 or 30 thousand podcasts on major distribution platforms. Now, there are 2.5 million on Apple Podcasts alone. How can an outsider podcast without major studio backing hope to find a loyal audience for its maritime squeaks, squawks, and screeches in such a crowded industry?
Time was, you could find success in podcasts with just hard work and a great idea. But that was before this modern-day audio content gold rush, with publishers spending boatloads of money to drown out any competition that might take the form of, say, an edifying 45-minute program featuring a wide array of dolphin sounds—regardless of quality, entertainment value, or number of extant species included. It’s gotten to the point where unaffiliated podcasts barely have any shot at becoming so popular they get optioned into a special on Animal Planet.
It’s just so hard to keep up with the big dogs when advertisers like BetterHelp and ZipRecruiter will only sponsor shows that get thousands of downloads and also have humans in them.
And don’t get me started on the celebrity aspect. Sure, it’s always been easier to break out if you’re a household name, like Dax Shepherd or Flipper. But it’s gotten to the point where if a podcast isn’t hosted by a Hollywood star, it has almost no shot at making it into the mainstream. Podcasting used to have a low barrier to entry, but now the industry has become just as star-obsessed and aquatic mammal-averse as television.
We need new voices in audio storytelling, even and especially if those voices are technically bioacoustic sounds produced by air movements in the dorsal bursa.
Plus, app algorithms only reward tried-and-true formats like comedy and mystery. They almost never push innovative content, even content that is, for example, organized into irresistible theme months like “Dolphin Halloween” and “We Love the ‘70s: Hawaii 5-Orca.” That’s why it’s never been more important for big podcast companies to champion smaller, boundary-pushing shows, instead of dismissing them out of hand just because they’re “unconventional” or “their theme songs are just hip-hop beats overlaid with more dolphin sounds.”
No one wants to take risks on anything unconventional or echolocational anymore.
Look, I get it. People like to listen to celebrity chat-casts and true crime exposés. And the market reflects that reality. But the fact that the landscape is so dominated by those types of shows, with barely any space left for anything new, different, or made up solely of 45 minutes of dolphin-generated clicks, whines, and frequency-modulated whistles with no additional context or commentary provided, is a sad one indeed.
I’ve got a good feeling about season two, though.