A wave of consolidation in the podcasting industry carries big stakes for the Boston area, whose robust public media scene and active community of independent producers have made the region a crucial center of growth for the burgeoning field.
New money is flowing rapidly into podcasting, most notably Spotify’s recent acquisition of the hot Brooklyn startup Gimlet Media. That trend could shift the balance of power in an industry whose collaborative ethos has allowed small players to flourish alongside larger ones.
Many in Boston’s podcasting scene are taking the rising corporate interest as a good sign, one that could point toward new ways of making a living through audio production. But there’s also a fear that a rush for profits in the industry could eventually squeeze out all but the biggest stars.
“It proves the value of the industry,” said Kerri Hoffman, chief executive of PRX, the Cambridge-based public media giant that distributes shows including “This American Life.” But Hoffman said it’s vital that companies jumping into podcasting help new voices find their audiences.
“The openness of both radio and on-demand audio is something we invest a lot of time and energy in,” she said. “That’s how you get diverse voices. That’s how you get niche programming. It’s media in the public interest.”
Last month, Spotify, the Swedish music streaming giant, spent $340 million to buy Anchor, which helps podcasters make and distribute their shows, and Gimlet, whose podcasts include “Conviction”, “StartUp,” and “Reply All.”
And this week, a podcast startup called Luminary said that it had raised nearly $100 million to support a subscription-based podcast network including shows from millennial favorites Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s “Girls,” and comedian Hannibal Buress .
Such moves could spur other big tech companies
to step up their investments in either podcast content or technology. For instance, Apple, which provides the dominant platform for free podcast subscriptions, has not looked to the medium as a significant money-making opportunity — yet.
Galen Beebe, a local editor working on the podcast “Ministry of Ideas” and with the group Bello Collective, said that though producers need some skills to record and distribute a show, audio lends itself to openness in a way that other media do not.
“The barrier to entry is a lot lower than it is for writing, because we all talk all the time. And we’re all really used to connecting with each other through our voices,” Beebe said. “In that way it is really easy for anyone to connect or anyone to listen, and at the moment there are a lot of free ways to do that.”
The most popular podcast applications use open standards that allow anyone to distribute a show through a few technical steps. But there’s no guarantee that the platforms of the future will have the same qualities.
Some worry the applications could eventually control who gets to list their shows in the places where listeners are most likely to look. And some are concerned that podcasts could be increasingly hidden behind paywalls, where it might be harder for casual listeners to find shows that don’t have huge audiences.
Wade Roush, host and producer of the tech and culture podcast “Soonish” and cofounder of the Boston podcasting collective Hub & Spoke, said he hopes consumers will continue to have easy access to podcasts from a diversity of producers.
“Netflix is great, but thank God we also have Showtime, and AMC, and HBO, and the TV networks, because no one should have a lock on creativity,” he said. “It would be horrifying if one single company became the arbiter of all podcasting.”
Public media powerhouses have raised the bar on production values, seeding the podcast world with slick, popular shows including WBUR’s “Modern Love” project with The New York Times.
But groups such as PRX have also worked to keep the medium open and accessible to less sophisticated producers, both as a way to develop a feeder system for high-quality programming and because the medium works for public radio’s financial structure.
Bob Kempf, vice president for digital services at WGBH, is optimistic about the organization’s business model for sustaining free podcasts, whose combination of advertising sponsorships and appeals for listener support has translated well into the digital realm.
Nonprofit media in Massachusetts, have been working to ensure the future of podcasts includes smaller shows and less experienced producers.
PRX runs a Podcast Garage in Allston, for instance, an effort to lower the barriers to entry by allowing producers to record shows on high-quality equipment for a small fee.
In the space set back from Western Avenue on a recent afternoon, Maureen Dahill and Heather Foley recorded an episode of their talk-show format podcast “Caught Up,” an extension of their voicey online neighborhood magazine Caught In Southie.
The show, which can rack up a 1,500 downloads on a good week, has been a big help in growing their business, and might not have worked without the Podcast Garage.
“We are very amateur as far as experience goes, but we sound like pros,” Foley said.
RadioPublic, a Boston tech startup with close links to public media, makes technology intended to keep producers big and small in control of their products.
The company’s podcast listening app helps listeners to find shows they might not discover on other platforms. Its Paid Listens service handles ad sales for small producers, collecting advertisers, distributing ads to listeners, and providing the producer with a cut of the proceeds. Another new offering helps producers with the complex task of setting up a website and feed to host episodes in a way that listeners can find them.
Nicholas Quah, the Connecticut-based publisher of the trade publication Hot Pod, said Boston’s podcasting sector could be a bulwark against the centralization of the industry.
“They could very well create a system of distribution, marketing, and content development that could be a check on whatever Spotify brings to the table two to three years down the line,” Quah said.
But the question, he said, remains: “Does everybody win, or do a small number of publishers win, and who gets power in the situation?”