01 Mar 2016

The People’s Pods

What’s behind the rise of the podcast economy?
by Dan Morrell

Illustration by Peter Arkle

Between 2008 and 2015, the percentage of Americans who listen to podcasts nearly doubled, according to Pew Research, jumping from 9 percent to 17 percent. What’s driving the growth? And how did a 10-year-old medium suddenly become the next big thing? Two alumni podcasters—James Allworth (MBA 2010) and Roben Farzad (MBA 2005)—weigh in.

HBS: Why did it take so long for the form to find its footing?

Allworth's Aha moment


RF: Technology. All that stodgy equipment you’d have to go to a public radio station for in the past has been compacted and streamlined for the iPad and iPhone world. Now you can walk into a person’s podcast-equipped garage, and there’ll be some good microphones hooked up to a MacBook and some eggcrate cushioning on the walls. And you could substantially replicate the NPR audio experience.

Farzad on the importance of democratizing the means of production


Bluetooth technology inside cars has been a factor. As recently as eight or nine years ago, if you wanted to use an MP3 player or an iPod in the car, you’d have to hook it up to one of those old cassette deck adapters. Now you have the ability to stream audio to your car stereo.

Allworth on the promise of podcast advertising


JA: Another way of thinking about it is distribution. Distribution used to be so, so important to get content out there. And increasingly, that’s not so, because the Internet is “disintermediating” all the distributors.

RF: If I went out with this idea just five or six or seven years ago, I’d be at the mercy of my local public radio station, which really controlled the means of both production and distribution. Now it’s into the great wide open. It’s really the democratization of audio. And that’s both an opportunity and a huge peril for the incumbent public radio world.

Farzad on thinking beyond precedent


JA: I think that dynamic is exactly right. For a lot of these radio stations, the aim used to be to create content that appealed to as broad an audience in your local geography as possible. But the Internet has completely turned that on its head. And because the addressable market has gone from that local geography to everyone, the best content, even if it’s in a niche, always rises to the top.

HBS: How much money can really be behind this boom? What would a podcasting bubble look like?

RF: A lot of people worry that we are in one right now. It’s become cliché. You go to a holiday party or a cocktail party, and people are like, “Oh, you know, I’m starting a podcast.” But that does make me worry, from a supply-and-demand and an advertiser equilibrium perspective. Are there going to be a handful of massive multimillion-listeners- per-week podcasts that capture the advertising disproportionately while all the others are taking pennies and nickels here and there?

JA: I am actually very bullish on the future of this. Advertisers used to put a lot of money into print. When Google came along, suddenly all the people who used to put money into print advertising went to Google, because it was so much more targeted. This is the exact same paradigm shift that’s going to happen to radio.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2005, Section I
follow @robenfarzad
Class of MBA 2010, Section E
follow @jamesallworth

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