Washington Monthly: Big Tech Comes for Podcasts

October 25, 2020 Media

The Daily is perhaps the most successful news product at the country’s most successful newspaper. Each weekday morning, a new episode of the New York Times podcast appears on millions of phones. Host Michael Barbaro, a former Times politics reporter, might talk one day to the White House correspondent Maggie Haberman about the latest Trump palace intrigue, and the next to a reporter in the Moscow bureau about unrest in Belarus. The show is a wildly successful experiment that attracts a much larger audience than the front page of the print newspaper each day and brings in major ad revenue from the likes of BMW, Chanel, and Fidelity Insurance. At a time when the financial viability of the news industry is very much in doubt, The Daily is an encouraging counterexample. 

Finally, we could also end up in a world where Spotify, Amazon, Google, and Apple all make aggressive efforts to own the podcasting space, and we end up with a few ginormous podcast creator-advertiser-distributor companies. That might be better than a single monopolist taking everything over—but probably not much. Right now the industry is mostly vertically separated. Some companies make podcasts, others do advertising, and still others run platforms—and there’s competition within each level. A four-way Big Tech podcasting oligopoly, however, would be more like the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s. In that world, “if you want to produce a podcast, you’re going to get to pick between one of four bosses, as opposed to being able to be your own boss and sell into an open market,” says Matt Stoller, an antitrust expert at the American Economic Liberties Project. (Stoller was one of the first to write about market consolidation in podcasting, and how it could harm the industry.) This could drive down revenue for content creators—and the publications that depend on them. Having four companies control the pipeline of audio content could also make it harder for new and independent creators to find an audience.