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Big Money Is Pouring Into Podcasting. Some Podcasters Love It — But Others Are Freaked Out

6 minute read

If there’s one thing Kid Fury wants you to know, it’s this: anyone can start a podcast. After all, he barely knew what they were when he got started, and now his show has millions of fans. “I kind of knew what podcasts were from spending enough time on the internet for years,” says Fury, who co-hosts the pop culture phenomenon The Read with writer Crissle West. “I actually don’t listen to podcasts very often.” A YouTube personality-turned-TV producer, Fury’s path from blogging in Miami to podcasting to making shows for HBO and Fuse in New York is the stuff of motivational speeches. That The Read is now the inspiration for one of Kid Fury’s shows is evidence of a larger trend: Big Podcast is here, and it’s changing the industry forever.

Podcasting, once a low-budget affair done mostly by hobbyists for whom financial gain was rarely the goal, is now attracting big money. Gimlet, the podcast studio behind popular shows like Reply All, Mystery Show, and Homecoming, was acquired by Spotify in February — along with Anchor, an app that lets you listen to and produce your own podcast — for a combined $340 million. “The format is really evolving and while podcasting is still a relatively small business today, I see incredible growth potential for the space and for Spotify in particular,” said Spotify CEO Daniel Ek in a blog post announcing the deal. Last September, radio giant iHeartMedia spent a reported $55 million in September to acquire podcast network Stuff Media, home to podcasts like Stuff You Should Know and Omnibus. Well-known celebrities like Anna Faris, Will Ferrell, and Trevor Noah are getting in on the action with shows of their own, too. In 2018, the podcast industry overall generated an estimated $479 million in advertising revenue, according to an International Advertisers Bureau report. By 2021, it’s expected to generate over a billion.

Longtime podcasters have mixed feelings about all the recent money and attention pouring into the business.

“Certainly it’s harder to get attention in the podcast world for a podcast than it was 10 years ago,” says Jesse Thorn, creator and owner of the Maximum Fun podcast network, home to shows like Judge John Hodgman and Friendly Fire. Part of the problem, he says, is that as already well-known names get into the business, it could suck attention away from upstarts. Meanwhile, podcasting apps have only so much room for recommendations, which is how new podcast listeners tend to find their first shows. “There might only be eight slots on the front page, that’s mostly where people are going to click — or for that matter on a car dashboard, where there’s almost no space,” says Thorn. “There is the potential for it to be hard to get independent podcasts to the marketplace, and especially to get independent podcasts to the marketplace in a way that is fairly monetized.”

But Thorn has also benefited mightily from all the attention being paid to podcasts recently. “While it’s tough for indies, I think that for the most part, the rising tide raises all boats,” he says. “But hey, maybe this is just what I tell myself so I don’t cry myself to sleep at night, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do to compete with people who have a quarter of a billion dollars.”

Other podcasters worry that, as show creators seek advertising revenue from big brands, they’ll be less willing to take creative risks for fear of alienating a potential sponsor, eventually leaving listeners disappointed. “It just seems so tacky and cheap,” says Jonathan Larroquette of Uhh Yeah Dude, a podcast the musician co-hosts with actor Seth Romatelli, of advertising on the medium. ”There’s no place that someone hasn’t tried to wedge themselves between the sender and the receiver in order to try to capitalize on that process.” In lieu of ads, Larroquette and Romatelli ask listeners to contribute to the show on Patreon, a crowdfunding site that’s popular with digital creatives. (They experimented with ads for a handful of episodes in the past.)

Larroquette and Romatelli are also wary of podcast hosts who they accuse of exploiting the medium as a way to expand to other — and often more lucrative — ventures. “Everyone is utilizing the platform as a means of getting somewhere else,” says Larroquette. “And I think that taints the medium, because it’s being manipulated as a sort of springboard or extension of something else.” Gimlet’s podcast Homecoming, for example, has been turned into a well-received Amazon series starring Julia Roberts.

But others don’t blame podcasters for seeking other opportunities, as artists across media have done to finance their work and advance their careers. “People write young adult books just because they hope that it’ll turn into some blockbuster film,” says Kid Fury. “People will write plays hoping they become a movie. That’s just a thing.” To him, what makes a podcast good, whether it eventually makes it to TV or not, is integrity, an important value for both him and his co-host. “It’s always about integrity, it’s always about being true to ourselves, and giving the people who supported us something I think they would enjoy, something that we can be proud of.”

Meanwhile, some old-school podcasters have embraced the boom as a business opportunity beyond making shows. Dan Benjamin, a computer programmer, founded the podcast network 5by5 in 2009 after deciding to launch his own podcast — Hivelogic — in 2006. “Long story short, what originally started as me just wanting to do a few shows grew into a small business,” he says. Along the way, he built a custom content management system for the 30-plus shows on the network, working on issues like advertising, hosting and distribution so 5by5’s hosts could focus on making killer shows. Eventually, he spun off two separate companies from his core business: Archer Avenue, which handles podcast ad sales, and Fireside, which manages podcast distribution, analytics, hosting and more. “I thought, ‘who better to do something like this than somebody who’s been podcasting since 2006?’”

Benjamin says it’s clear from listening to his customers that, as big money and big names flow into the industry, upstart podcasters are increasingly desperate to find an audience and get a slice of the pie for themselves. “We’re almost reaching like a desperation point of like, ‘How do I promote my show? How do I get it out there?,” he says. For the newcomers to the business, Kid Fury has some refreshingly optimistic advice: “Give it a shot,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how saturated the field is right now, you could be exactly what we need, because there’s a whole lot of the same. Maybe you or your best friend or your auntie or your grandma can fill the void.”

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Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com