In December 2020, Spotify signed the biggest deal in podcasting history. The Swedish audio-streaming giant had acquired the exclusive streaming rights to the highly successful and controversial The Joe Rogan Experience for a whopping US $100 million. Two years later, The New York Times revealed that the true amount of that deal was US $200 million. That same year Spotify spent an estimated US $1 billion to land platform-exclusive deals, which also included Michelle Obama’s eponymous podcast, according to a report in The Verge. Obama ended her exclusivity contract in early 2022 and Rogan’s deal expires at the end of this year. That’s a lot of money for a medium that only turned 20 this year.
It’s hard to believe that Open Source, which is considered to be the first-ever podcast, premiered on the Harvard University blog only two decades ago. A politics and culture-based show hosted by journalist Christopher Lydon, the show kickstarted a podcasting revolution that would end up helping tons of comedians and entertainers stay relevant by entering our everyday conversations. When Open Source started, it was called “audio blogging”. It was only when Apple software developer Dave Winer coded a program known as iPodder—an app that moved MP3 files from Userland Radio to iTunes—for the iPod that journalist Ben Hammersley coined the term in 2004, combining the words iPod and broadcast. A year later, Oxford declared ‘podcast’ as the word of the year in the United States. By 2006, The Ricky Gervais Show, which Gervais hosted alongside Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, was the world’s most popular podcast, averaging 2,61,670 downloads per week.
A lot has changed since then. Podcasts have become so easy to make and consume that people are predicting an over-saturation of the medium. In 2019, The New York Times warned people of podcast fatigue setting in, leading to a downfall in listeners thanks to an influx of new shows being launched each month. However, Demand Sage, a data reporting and analytics website, shows that listenership has practically doubled since then. The idea that the overpopulated podcast bubble will burst this year is starting to gain traction again with Vulture’s Nicholas Quah, warning that “2023 is going to hurt”. He says this because the global economy is on precarious footing currently, and just like every other media and entertainment sector, podcasting is likely to take a hit. Companies like Spotify and iHeartMedia will have to take a deep look at the exorbitant spending of the last four years.
“You’re right in calling out the overpaying and over-investing, and I can start off by saying that we’re not going to do that.” (Spotify CEO Daniel Ek)
At a conference in April this year, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek acknowledged as much, declaring that the era of big spending on podcasts is over. “You’re right in calling out the overpaying and over-investing, and I can start off by saying that we’re not going to do that,” Ek responded to an analyst’s question about podcast investments, The Verge reported.
However, Quah believes that subscription-based podcasts will continue to trudge along despite the poor economic conditions. These direct-to-consumer business models also aid indie podcasters to continue their work and maintain the medium’s long-term health.
In India, podcasters are following suit by setting up membership programs on YouTube and Patreon (a platform where members pay to get exclusive perks) to release exclusive content for their fans. Amin Jazayeri, co-host of the recently successful Untriggered Podcast, said they have found some success with this model. “People who invest a lot of time listening to us are more curious about the behind-the-scenes working of the show,” he told us. “They’re interested in what’s going on in our personal lives and that’s what they get in the bonus episodes.” In the three months since they started the membership program on their YouTube channel, they’ve amassed roughly 300 steady members who are paying anywhere between ₹199 to ₹1999.
Jazayeri’s show is also a testament to how a couple of dudes with microphones and a silent room can have a successful show. There’s no need for an extensive editing process or an expensive tour to test out your material. Also in the pros column: podcasting is independent of any gatekeepers and even censorship to some extent. A little pet project can blow up into a successful show at any point. You don’t even need to be a seasoned comedian. Podcasts have changed the way comedy is performed and then consumed by the public. What was once an art form that relied on misdirection, edginess and discomfort has transformed into one that rests on familiarity and intimacy. They have established a bond between the hosts and the listeners week on week which would otherwise take years if they were limited to a comedy stage.
Podcasts have changed the way comedy is performed and then consumed by the public. What was once an art form that relied on misdirection, edginess and discomfort has transformed into one that rests on familiarity and intimacy.
Another popular Indian podcast is the weekly show The Internet Said So, which Aadar Malik, Kautuk Srivastava, Neville Shah and Varun Thakur have been hosting since 2019. “It all started from the need to put out content that was supplementary to our standup,” Thakur told DeadAnt. “It was a way to keep things fun and easy. At the end of the day, who doesn’t want to listen to a fun conversation? That’s what this was.”
Across the seven years that they’ve been in the podcast game—they also hosted the now defunct The Big Question as part of the SnG Comedy collective—they’ve been the most consistent comedy podcasters in India. Both shows aided the comedians in forming a dedicated fanbase that tuned in to their weekly ramblings, establishing a closely-knit community in a country where standup comedy was still in its infancy. These shows also helped audiences to listen in on candid conversations and discover personal stories and quirks about their favourite performers. “Our fans have become sort of our extended friend circle, who we don’t really meet,” Thakur laughed. “In fact, some of our fans might know more about us than our own wives. My wife has heard episodes and said, ‘You did this in school? Even I didn’t know.'”
Podcasting came particularly handy in allowing comedians to stay in touch with their fanbase during the COVID-19 lockdown. With the world coming to a grinding halt, podcasts served as a place of solace for the hosts and the listeners. Despite an initial decline, there was a 42% increase in the time people spent on audio streaming platforms like Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn and others in March 2020, according to data and insight consultancy Kantar and audience measurement and analytics company VTION. “We went from being a ‘Hey, these guys are fun’ kind of place to friends and household favourites for people who genuinely needed an outlet,” said Neville Shah. “To the people who were alone, stuck in another city, and weren’t with their family. And as a result, people started to feel closer because it felt like we were there with them through the lockdown.”
In addition to staying in touch with their existing community and widening it further, podcasts also allowed comedians and entertainers to create content when venues, shoots and studios had shut down. “During the first lockdown, I saw a lot of US and UK-based podcasts and realised we don’t have such shows in India,” said Jazayeri. “In India, when you hear the word podcast, only BeerBiceps comes to mind. So I started doing episodes by myself and got on some guests from my limited network. But after two episodes, the second lockdown was announced. So I just called on a bunch of my friends, we had natural chemistry, and our show hit it off.”
Similarly, comedian Sorabh Pant began hosting Wake Up With Sorabh in 2020. It was his way to stay active and have some fun, meaningful conversations with his peers, actors, sports personalities, historians and others. The experiment became immensely popular among Indian viewers, crossing the 200-episode threshold, and is still going strong three years on, even after live comedy has resumed.
“The first couple of weeks of the pandemic there weren’t any online shows either,” said Pant. “So just to keep myself sane and happy I thought I’ll start this off. In the process, I realised podcasting is a very professional reason to stay in touch with some of the people you are talking to. If I want to make a plan to get coffee with a comedian, writer, actor or journalist who is very busy, the chances of them saying yes are very low as compared to an interview or a podcast where they can sell tickets or market their book. It’s a quid-pro-quo situation.”
Wake Up With Sorabh’s success also translated into ticket sales for Pant. “Say, if I sell 100 tickets in a city, 25 of them are there because they saw the podcast,” he said. “Every comedian globally is looking at it as a way to bring in viewers who will eventually come out to watch you perform.”
Over the past two decades, podcasting has gone through multiple format changes to keep up with the rapidly developing entertainment industry. What was once an only audio medium, is now dominated by video and live shows. Furthermore, as short-form content proliferates, it offers smaller indie podcasts a fighting chance to get a foot in the door. “It’s the easiest way to reach people,” said Jazayeri.
“One 30-second clip can go viral and bring a completely new viewer base to your show. It’s slightly more expensive but video is very important if you want your podcast to gain traction,” he said. “With Instagram reels and YouTube shorts I think people can gauge their interest levels and decide whether they want to listen to the full episode,” added Pant.
Podcasters have also started touring with their shows to perform live in front of sold-out audiences. In India, The Internet Said So has been successful in pivoting to this format, booking out venues in a matter of hours. “It becomes a very different kind of show when we perform live,” said Thakur. “When we’re doing it over Zoom it’s a conversation that we’re having. But in person, we’re constantly making jokes with our fans there.”
“Podcasting is a very professional reason to stay in touch with some of the people you are talking to. If I want to make a plan to get coffee with a comedian, writer, actor or journalist who is very busy, the chances of them saying yes are very low as compared to an interview or a podcast where they can sell tickets or market their book.”
Globally, podcasts like Tigerbelly (hosted by Bobby Lee and Khalyla Kuhn), Bad Friends (hosted by Andrew Santino and Bobby Lee) and Off The Menu (hosted by James Acaster and Ed Gamble) have conducted country-wide tours, selling out 1,000-seater venues and even arenas. Live podcasts attract a lot of fans “who have never come to see a live comedy show before”, Ophelia Francis, head of live comedy at London venues 2Northdown and 21Soho, told The Guardian in an interview. “Even the guests on high-profile podcasts such as Off The Menu see a big boost in ticket sales,” she said.
Ben Williams, the producer of Off The Menu, one of the UK’s most popular podcasts, told The Guardian that “podcasts are full of in-jokes where the more you’ve listened and the more you’ve engaged with it, the more you’re rewarded.” This is exemplified in Kanan Gill and Manek D’Silva’s No New Notifications. The show is so dense with inside jokes that a new listener would be lost from the first minute. But avid fans are always waiting for the latest episode and won’t shy away from following orders such as listening to the show only on their eponymous app, which is riddled with bugs.
“Podcasts are full of in-jokes where the more you’ve listened and the more you’ve engaged with it, the more you’re rewarded.” (Ben Williams)
In the US, comedians such as Bobby Lee, Rick Glassman and Whitney Cummings have used their podcasts to showcase their offstage personalities. Cummings, known for her commentary on the patriarchy and relationships in her standup, uses her podcast Good For You to have more relaxed, playful conversations with her peers and other professionals.
The Tiny Meat Gang podcast hosted by YouTubers Cody Ko and Noel Miller gained popularity in its early months and the revenue from their Patreon members and YouTube views allowed Miller to quit his day job to follow his creative endeavours. If you listen in on any mildly successful podcast, you’ll notice that new-age businesses are pouring in money to be advertised on these shows to reach their target audience. In just the United States, podcast advertising revenue was US $1.8 billion in 2022, according to Statista, a German online platform specialising in data gathering and visualisation. This bolsters the argument that podcasting is a viable source of revenue for upcoming comedians, YouTubers and entertainers.
During the medium’s short lifespan, its effects have been felt far beyond the little app that you carry around on your phone. Podcasting has had a global impact on pop culture and the way we consume content. It has made the arts and the artists a lot more transparent, bringing their processes and immediate thoughts to the foreground. It feeds off of candour and has helped in creating a large audience of casually obsessive consumers who would listen to a conversation about pretty much anything under the sun. Demand Sage reports that listeners grew from 274.8 million in 2019 to 464.7 million this year. It is projected that this number will rise to 504.9 million in 2024. In short, podcasting has made consuming content and information an extremely casual process and with new users joining audio platforms every day, the format’s user base is likely to keep growing.
Only time will tell whether the podcast craze will fizzle out or keep growing. Currently though, with live podcasts selling out massive arenas and hosts raking in thousands of dollars a month off of subscriptions and YouTube Adsense, the format seems to be here to stay. Podcasts may no longer have the same pop culture impact as they did over the last decade or so, but they will never stop being a convenient method for fans and internet personalities to form a virtual bond.