Podcasts in pivotal moment as number of new shows drops by 80%

Analysts uncover dramatic worldwide decline in debuts, even though demand for content remains high

Was podcasting just a passing trend – and one that’s already over? Surprising new industry figures have revealed that the number of new shows fell rapidly in the last year; a worldwide decline of 80% compared with the two previous years.

These statistics suggest the podcast balloon has burst, but closer study shows that the slowdown marks a major change in direction prompted by “a case of the jitters”, according to one leading British podcast producer.

Analysts at Chartr uncovered the dramatic drop using international data supplied by the podcast engine Listen Notes. In 2020, 1,109,000 podcasts were launched. In 2021, 729,000 new titles came out, while last year only 219,000 shows debuted. (For some perspective, there are thought to be at least 3m podcasts running across the globe, and most made are in America and Brazil. The vast majority are made in the English language, with Spanish in second place.)

Popular British sports brands such as the High Performance Podcast, along with serious factual shows, such as Goalhanger Podcasts’ the Rest is History or Global’s the News Agents, have won huge audiences, with the live version of Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s Goalhanger strand, the Rest of Politics, filling the Albert Hall in December. Podcasts with emotive content, such as Peter Crouch and Abbey Clancy’s hit the Therapy Crouch and Cariad Lloyd’s Griefcast, or those with comic value, like Deborah Frances-White’s the Guilty Feminist, are among many to have altered the landscape of audio entertainment in the last decade. But has the tide now turned?

“It feels like we’re in that ‘difficult second album’ moment now, and of course there’s a lot to worry about,” said Kate Taylor, an award-winning producer who diagnosed “the jitters”. She founded Feast Collective, a network that supports freelance podcasters. “I would say sponsorship is harder to find now and that getting investors to understand the amount needed to do something properly is also harder.”

Some experts have argued the new decline is a post-pandemic effect, with the artificial boom in production caused by enforced lockdowns now coming to an end. But the figures reveal more complexity, since almost the same number of new shows ended during the pandemic period as started up. Whatever the root, stalling production levels pose some worrying questions for those who make podcasts and those who invest in them.

“A lot of freelancers, whether they are older hacks like me who have worked with the BBC, or newly qualified journalists, are wondering what is changing and if they should learn new skills to do video podcasting,” said Taylor. “Or if it is all going to be about celebrity podcasts now. It is causing tension because there are lots of pulls in different directions.”

An optimistic analysis of the new figures indicates a shift typical in a maturing market as production stabilises into established strands. New show launches may be much less frequent now, but there is still strong demand for content.

Sean Glynn’s podcast company Novel is behind award-winning shows such as the Bellingcat Podcast, and the Superhero Complex, and he accepts that getting a new shows commissioned is now more of a challenge. “The statistics are right, but listenership figures are still high and continuing to grow, and existing strands are building audiences,” he said. “And did we need as many new podcasts as were being created?”

Data from the Listen Notes engine backs this up. New shows may have tailed off markedly but there are still new episodes of current strands being made, despite a 13% drop in the last two years.

“It’s true is that not so many new ones come out but there’s a lot of content being created,” Glynn explains. “The big platforms are not launching so much, but existing strands with a big audience are still there.”

Glynn and Taylor both detect another contradictory trend, undercutting this move towards popular, established podcasts. Deeper, better researched, even “niche content”, is still in demand. These shows may reach small audiences but they still help commercial sponsors and advertisers to reach specific consumers.

“Niche content is a real strength in the market, and people want to make their own, increasingly specialist shows,” said Taylor. “Let’s not forget the vast majority of podcasts are not listened to by very many people anyway. It’s all smoke and mirrors when it comes to listenership. But size is not necessarily the main thing.”

Glynn’s company is bucking this supposedly downward trend. In uncertain times, it has just secured £5m from a UK growth capital investor that will allow it to compete with the BBC and American producers. “We are more like a journalistic start-up with a team of 50 all developing stories for other distributors. And some of our stories take a long time.”

With a team in LA, Novel’s podcast the Superhero Complex has just been picked up by NBC Universal in America, and they are making 11 shows over there in partnership with iHEartRadio, in addition to their British output.

Glynn believes he is watching the podcast business mature as brands develop and customers find them. Yet, however the cards are shuffled, authenticity will remain the key to success. He explains: “Listeners have got to believe that the podcasters would be doing it for just two people, let alone two million, because they care.”


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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