It’s not sufficient to say that podcasts are to radio what platforms like BBC iPlayer and Netflix are to television. For one thing, in terms of capital, they are much cheaper to produce than typical radio programmes, and for another it is rarely obligatory to pay for podcasts, especially as they are released. However, this is just as well.
At face value, the only people who would pull in large revenues from a niche like podcasting are the people that don’t need large revenues. The Ricky Gervais Show is a classic example of this. Gervais and Merchant had already made The Office and Extras before venturing into podcasting and it took less than a year before translating that into merchandise for Karl Pilkington to gain from.
Alternatively, podcasts come at ten-a-penny but tend to be done for the fun of it, are of low quality, or don’t last very long.
Podcasts are available on essentially any subject one can think of. If a concept exists, more often than not there’s a podcast relevant to it, or it won’t be long before there is.
It’s a market full of millions of losers, but also quite a few winners. The market is large with podcasts such as 99% Invisible pulling in two million viewers per episode, comparable with most British television programmes.
Yet podcasters do make money. Podcasts like Answer Me This!, The Bugle and Planet Money have all persisted nearly a decade through sheer commitment to quality, and have generated huge subcultures of fans. Each of the first two rely on donations, exclusive content or both.
But the trick isn’t just in effective advertising, or making use of existing fame.
The key determinant of success isn’t market size but engagement. Podcasts benefit more from a thousand engaged listeners, than a million disinterested ones.