The Podcast Network Glory Days

Following Mike Monteiro’s recent announcement that he would effectively shutter Mule Radio Syndicate due to its untenable demand on his time, many wrote short farewells to what they considered a great podcast network. Marco Arment, however, had something very interesting to say regarding the future of this now-popular business model:

“The glory days of podcast networks are behind us.”

It was a short quip, and to many, inconsequential. Nevertheless, as with most things even tangentially related to podcasts, I find it extremely interesting.

Traditionally, podcasts networks have consisted of many disparate shows spread across a wide spectrum of topics and produced by a diverse collection of hosts. Today, that is exactly what we see in giants like 5by5, for example. Historically, however, that has not been the case: irregardless of the current size or even the existence of a podcast network today, each invariably started as a collection of shows done by a single host on a relatively concentrated set of topics. Myke Hurley’s 70Decibels was comprised primarily of tech-centric shows, almost all of which he hosted before merging with 5by5. Similarly did 5by5 start, with Dan Benjamin co-hosting every show his network released. Both of these grew up to become very successful, but they did so because they were personality-driven: everyone tuned in to hear Mike Hurley, and everyone tuned in to hear Dan Benjamin. Had 70Decibels persisted, there is no doubt in my mind that it would have continued gaining in popularity. And 5by5, well, it speaks for itself these days. They would not have continued growing, and do not continue growing, respectively, increasingly popular because of that personality anymore though, but rather because they have quite literally become too big to fail: their base of appeal is too large to do anything but succeed anymore. With such a large spread of shows on so many different topics, 5by5 appeals to too large an audience to fade into irrelevance today.

But on the other hand, we have podcast networks like Constellation by Fiat Lux popping up and following a similar trajectory as both 70Decibels and 5by5 did once upon a time. And like both 5by5 and 70Decibels, Constellation is largely personality-driven, although it is worthwhile to note that Fiat Lux also seeks to differentiate itself on its divergent approach to this medium. So while I think Marco is correct in saying that the glory days of podcast networks are over, I feel it is worthwhile to make a distinction between groups relying on a vast roster of shows and thus a wide base of appeal to keep them afloat, and those seeking to make themselves known and successful through their hosts’ unique personality. Because we will always have room for another of the latter, even if the glory days of the former are past.