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Podcasts are creating dangerous echo chambers. Here’s why

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

May 11, 2021

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In recent years, podcasting has skyrocketed in popularity. It seems that every influencer, music enthusiast, and lifestyle guru has created a podcast part and parcel of the rest of their digital brand. Forbes estimated that in 2020, “100 million people listened to a podcast each month [in the US] and it’s expected to reach 125 million in 2022.” Along with this high listener count came swathes of ad revenue. In its 2020 Digital Advertising Revenue Report, IAB PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that the “estimated podcast ad spend was $800 million in 2020,” a number that “will more than double to $1.7 billion by 2024, with an annual growth of nearly 20%.”

Podcasting now could be equated to what Youtube was in the early 2010s; it’s moving into the mainstream, allowing those who have put the time and effort into the medium from the get-go to soak up the profits. However, this trajectory into the mainstream has also led to podcasts with huge budgets, big names, and watered-down content compared to what they were just a few years ago.

Contrasting the medium is its predecessor, the radio, which has experienced a consequential decrease. Statista Research Department—a German company that specialises in market and consumer data—reported that in 2019, North Americans cited a number of reasons for their reduced radio consumption. These included their car having more audio options than just the radio, there being too many commercials, not to mention a lack of musical variety, with the same songs on repeat over and over. With this in mind, why have talk shows increased via podcasting, rather than its traditional format?

One possibility could lie in podcasts’ ability to be more attuned to their listeners. Much like the growth of music online has given rise to myriad genres, podcasts are niche broadcasts that hone in on the interests of their listeners in depth, to a larger extent than radio can. This is especially true for independent podcasts as they can discuss whatever they’d like to, with whatever nuances, political leanings, or other topics they choose to include without interference from advertisers. This contrast between podcasts and radio can be seen on YouTube and television as well. Content made in bedrooms and makeshift studios isn’t as diluted by studio rewrites and other industry authorities, allowing the work to come almost directly from the person creating it in a relatively unfiltered way.

Another reason for podcasts’ rise in popularity could be attributed to the medium’s intimate nature. Not only are podcasters discussing topics directly aligned to the listeners’ interests, but they often are also doing so in a conversational voice. As opposed to the heightened, emotive tone used by radio broadcasters when announcing the traffic or weather updates, podcasts sound more like a conversation between friends; a telephone call you’re listening in on that you don’t have to speak on. 

Even ads featured within podcasts follow this casual cadence. This results in a more effortless listening experience, and a heightened connection between the listener and the podcaster. Irish artist and podcaster, Blindboy Boatclub, often describes this sense of comfort evoked by the medium—or, in particular, his soft tone and piano backtrack—as a “podcast hug.” This conversational aspect of podcasting creates a soothing, relatable bubble for listeners to escape into and forget their day-to-day life for a moment.

Due to podcasting’s skyrocket in popularity, new apps have been made in response to this cultural movement, one of these being Clubhouse. This invite-only social media app reflects the casual nature of podcast formatting, but allows users to participate in conference-call conversations of their choosing. They’re much like live podcasts, only with an extra layer of exclusivity. But with the medium ever-evolving, where does it go from here?

New York University (NYU) professor and contributing editor to The Baffler, Liz Pelly, has become well-known for her criticism of content streaming services and the economic models behind them, particularly Spotify. In her article Big Mood Machine, Pelly points out how Spotify is largely based on moods. Looking at my ‘Browse’ page now under the category ‘Mood’, playlists include ‘Mood Booster’, ‘Morning Coffee’, ‘Feelin’ Myself’, ‘Good Vibes’, and ‘Confidence Boost’; genre is loosely hinted at, but emotion is paramount for definition here. Pelly notes that streaming services have pushed mood-based listening over the years as “a way to help users navigate infinite choice, to find their way through a vast library of forty million songs.” At the time of her writing the piece in June 2019, Spotify’s Twitter tagline was “Music for every mood.”

Just as we have witnessed the explosion of emotive reaction—many may say all thanks to social media—in recent years, which has resulted in the polarised society we find ourselves in today, our streaming services have begun to churn out more content underpinned by emotion. Podcasts, and other digital mediums, have become mood-based, allowing us to listen to content directly aligned to our particular feelings and thoughts, but shielding us from anything that may slightly oppose our viewpoint.

Writer, artist, and Stanford University professor Jenny Odell pinpoints this in her best-selling book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. In the chapter ‘Ecology of Strangers’, Odell juxtaposes her algorithmically generated listening experience of Spotify to that of listening to the radio. Compared to the archetypal ‘Jenny mix’ the app has compiled for her, she notes that none of the stations she listens to ever play anything like what Spotify would put up next for her. Rather than expose us to what we don’t like, she explains that streaming services and niche listening experiences based on algorithms, SEO, and ad revenue “seem to incrementally entomb [us] as an ever-more stable image of what [we individually] like and why.”

From a business perspective, this makes sense, as it’s easy for corporations to promote being yourself when “‘yourself’ is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised and appropriated, like unites of capital.” Here, Odell outlines just how our interests and selfhoods have become commodified by streaming, which, in turn, results in more individualised listening experiences.

As podcasts become more mainstream through ad revenue yet primarily mood-based, we will continue down this accelerated path of ultra-niche content. It’s a dangerous and slippery slope. We’ll carry on existing in a rose-tinted filter bubble, missing out on the serendipity of content that doesn’t directly align with our personal brand, until, someday, it pops.