4 ways independent podcasters can compete with big media in 2020.

 The term podcasting is in a time of confusion. It used to mean something specific (independent creators, open RSS, distribution on all players), but the times have changed and you can either resist it or look for opportunities in the new landscape.

Podcasting has been moving steadily towards high production content and now, major distributors are playing the content game, effectively suffocating optimism of equal playing ground for independent creators. 

There’s a conundrum in podcasting that mirrors the US economy: A widening gap between the top 1% and the other 99%.

When Luminary or Spotify or Apple play the content game, they will always give preference to their own shows. The place where people listen to and search for podcasts will all prefer shows that aren’t yours. Their business model hinges on this since they can’t monetize your content. Spotify is actively acquiring media companies and publishers and it is rumored that Apple will follow suit.

So what now?
The good news is that independent creators can exploit the weaknesses of the new landscape. But first, let’s begin with what to avoid.

  1. High production value. Large publishers have high budgets, talent pools, and experience that is 100x greater than an average independent creator. It’ll be increasingly difficult to compete in the same genres of content. 
  2. Popular categories. Comedy, True-crime, and news briefings are difficult categories for incumbents to compete in because the top shows are already really good. 
  3. Broadcasting format. Many podcast interviews resemble a type of broadcasting aura that we saw on TV and heard on the radio. For example, “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for tuning into this podcast, today on the show we have…” etc. This format works well for large shows but feels out of place for small audiences. 

Does this mean that independent podcasters will now be left on the sidelines? Here’s how to exploit the weaknesses of the new terrain: Independent creators must focus on the kind of content publishers will struggle to replicate.

1. Lean into transparent informal audio. 

Netflix spends up-to $200M to create a popular season and still more people watch Youtube than all videos on Netflix and Facebook combined. Why? Because Youtube is a place for honest, transparent, informal video. 
There is a value to raw transparency that publishers cannot reproduce. Instead of trying to sound like the big shows on your podcast, lean into the raw element and record with your Airpods while out on the field. 
Find new ways to create audio that doesn’t sound like the big podcasts and people will love you for offering them something fresh. 

2. Build strong niche communities.

I have often said that independent podcasters should start with a group of people instead of an interesting topic or idea. If you can connect with a specific group of people, in a very specific situation in life, they will always prefer your content over generic content that everyone listens to. 
A show about single moms of color, living in the city, and raising their kids, it will always win with those moms.
But if you add community to the equation, you will have built a moat around your listeners that no publisher can compete with. Unfortunately, podcasting tends to be one-directional and building an organic community isn’t easy. This is why we’ve created the Listen App project, where listeners can use their voice to record comments and connect with other listeners. 

3. Look outside the Overton window.

Large publishers have to play safe and avoid getting in trouble for addressing topics that “you’re not supposed to talk about”. The Overton Window refers to discourse that is politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. Publishers have to think about what their advertisers will say, they have to think about their brand and many other factors that will not permit them to explore territory outside the Overton window. 

Which leaves plenty of green grass for independent podcasters to graze upon. I would dare say that this is a significant reason why Joe Rogan continues to lead the top charts.

4. Iterate and experiment

 Finally, large publishers are forced to adhere to “what works” and have limited budgets for experimentation. They can’t afford to have a show that doesn’t succeed.

It’s the same way in business. Even though many startups have little money, they’re able to create products that large companies would never dream of, because they are able to experiment and iterate quickly.

Podcasting and audio, in general, has followed a few set formats but just because that’s the way it was done on radio, doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. There can be so many new formats of storytelling and audio entertainment that we have not even discovered. 

Our goal at the Listen App is to create the environment experimental and social audio can thrive. Follow the journey to see it happen from the front row.

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