This story originally appeared in Hot Pod Insider, The Verge’s newsletter covering audio’s biggest events. You can Register here.
It feels like 2022 was the year podcasting came back to earth. After years of go-go growth, podcast hits going mainstream, big corporate investments and hype about the upcoming market ($4 billion by 2024!!), optimism about the industry is hitting the wall of an uncertain economy. M&A took a breather, ads tightened up, and companies started laying off audio employees after years of frenzied hiring.
What does 2023 have in store? If we’ve learned anything from the past decade so far, it’s to expect the unexpected. But since I’m as incapable of predicting the future as anyone else, I’ve spoken to some experts about what they expect for the year ahead. The most important rule: If the economy avoids a major downturn, we’ll see more of the same for podcasting — slowing, but manageable, growth. If a recession comes, it could leave the industry far behind.
What exactly is going on with the advertising market?
The advertising market, to use industry terminology, is weak. It’s not terrible – there’s still plenty of ad dollars flowing into different types of media – but it’s not growing as fast as before. And there is a chance that things will get significantly worse in 2023.
This is going to sound very basic, and surely many of you reading this already know how this works, but advertising is extremely sensitive to economic disruption. And there have been quite a few disruptions in 2022: the war in Ukraine drove up energy costs; create high inflation everything from vegetables to car insurance more expensive; and rising interest rates that drive stock prices down. All in all, these factors make running a business more expensive. It could also force consumers to spend less on goods and services, and though that hasn’t really happened yetit’s something that could easily if these economic conditions continue.
So companies that would otherwise spend money on advertising are either feeling the pain or being conservative in times of uncertainty. And when those companies have to make a choice between things like staffing, operations, consumer experience and marketing, marketing is usually the first to go. That means less advertising money flows to the businesses that depend on it: traditional media, digital media, and social media.
“The uncertainty that people talked about as an abstraction for most of 2022 is really just beginning.”
That’s not to say the advertising market has collapsed, but it’s shaky. Max Willens, a senior analyst at eMarketer, says he noticed something odd when he spoke to an advertising agency executive. The director noted that only 5 percent of his client base had submitted their advertising budget for the year. According to Wills, yes very unusually close to the end of the year. Normally, more than half of those companies would have done so by now. “The uncertainty that people talked about as an abstraction for most of 2022 is really just beginning,” Willens said.
So what happens next in the advertising market really depends on what happens in the rest of the economy. The labor market is still tight (although it doesn’t feel that way when you work in the media, but more on that later) and inflation is start to slow down. But a Bloomberg questionnaire of more than three dozen economists is more pessimistic. They estimate the probability of a recession in the coming year at 7 in 10.
What does that mean for podcasting in particular?
Barring a total economic disaster, podcasting should be fine. Not great, not terrible, but fine. The problem is that the industry assumed podcast growth would remain as strong as it has been in recent years.
For 2023, eMarketer estimates that podcast ad revenue should still grow at 28.8 percent — almost the same growth rate as in 2022. But that’s also about half the growth rate podcasting experienced in 2021. Even worse, that rate is expected to increase by more than 10 points by 2024. “People overestimated and misinterpreted the recovery in 2021 as a sign that would become a springboard to real sustained blockbuster growth,” said Willens. “And you see in the media that it turned out to be quite wrong.”
During the boom, companies like Spotify, Amazon and SiriusXM invested hundreds of millions of dollars in podcast technology and content with the expectation that the industry would continue to grow. Even if investors aren’t happy with how much they’ve spent (and their current podcast profit margins), they’re in a better position to capture what advertising dollars are pouring into the market. With the biggest podcasts on the market (Spotify and Joe Rogan, Wondery and SmartLessSiriusXM and Crime junkie) and the most advanced tech stacks, they are in a better position to weather a recession. Independent makers, already having a harder time breaking out than they did a few years ago, will be left to pick up the scraps.
Can we expect more layoffs?
Likely. While layoffs have been avoided in many sectors of the economy, technology and media have not. As I mentioned above, companies will cut advertising budgets before they cut employees. But those ad cuts eventually lead to layoffs at ad-based companies. (Luckily us!)
The second half of 2022 has been littered with bizarre layoff news, and there’s no reason to think it will be the last. CNN and Spotify axed podcast producers, Twitter expelled nearly the entire Spaces team, and Bloomberg reports that SiriusXM layoffs are imminent. But the job cuts are more of a correction than a total erosion.
Matthew Harrigan, an analyst at The Benchmark Company who covers SiriusXM, said he wouldn’t be surprised if SiriusXM cut some jobs. He pointed to CEO Jennifer Witz’s recent comment to analysts about using a “disciplined approach to expense management” as an indication that some positions could be cut. Still, he does not expect large-scale cuts. “I don’t think there’s been an ‘oh, god’ moment where they looked at the business model and really wished they had done it so much differently,” he said. “It’s just a matter of cropping it a bit.”
But even a handful of layoffs can upset people who work in the industry, and not all companies are in the same position. NPR, a nonprofit organization, relies heavily on corporate sponsorship, another line item that companies cut when the economy is messy. With an expected $20 million drop in such sponsorships, the network took the drastic step of cutting its summer internship program. Audacy has to manage his massive debts and is reportedly considering the sale podcast studio Cadence13, which, by the way, has been a great success for them. If Cadence13 lands elsewhere, job security may be weak.
“There is nowhere to hide in a tougher economic environment. From an advertising standpoint, everything is touched.
Then there are the news media that have invested in podcasting in recent years. Expenses that rely on digital display advertising and subscriptions are facing significant cuts, including Gannett, Viceand so on, The Washington Post. Many audio workers are embedded in such companies and are at risk of losing their jobs, but how many will be laid off depends on the company’s priorities. On the one hand, audio advertising outperforms digital display advertising, so those jobs can be considered more valuable. On the other hand, they are not necessarily considered part of the core business and could be among the first to disappear.
Media industry analyst Craig Huber doesn’t expect publications to pull away from audio altogether. But if the economy deteriorates significantly, any job could be at risk. “There’s nowhere to hide in a tougher economic environment,” Huber said. “From an ad marketing point of view, everything is hit.”
With that light note, I wish you a very happy holiday. And don’t despair! Things go in cycles. As my personal lord and savior Bruce Springsteen wrote“Everything that dies one day comes back.”