Why Podcasts Are Becoming Netflix

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

Whether you listen to podcasts or not, it’s worth appreciating something odd about them. Podcasting has been one of the few areas of digital information and entertainment that hasn’t been controlled by giant corporations.

That phase is ending, and there’s now a battle to become a Big Tech Boss of podcasts.

The past weeks of controversy involving the podcast host Joe Rogan highlighted the ways that Spotify and other companies want to become a Netflix of podcasting. They imagine controlling both popular programming like Rogan’s show and the digital spot where we listen.

This comes at a time when tech nerds want to remodel the internet to be less dictated by powerful companies — captured by the umbrella term “Web3.” That reality already existed in podcasts, and is fading. What’s happening to podcasts is a potentially discouraging lesson that utopian ideals of digital freedom may give way when the potential profits become too alluring.

Let me step back and explain why podcasts have been a relatively freewheeling corner of digital life, and what we gain and lose now that it’s changing.

Anyone can, in theory, make a podcast in their basement and then distribute it everywhere that people listen to podcasts. There isn’t a set of rules that everyone has to follow.

Maybe that doesn’t seem remarkable, but it kind of is. In much of the internet, Big Tech bouncers man the doors.

Apple and (to a lesser extent) Google dictate where we download apps, how we pay for them and what features they include. Amazon effectively directs what millions of merchants and online shoppers do. The places where we form communities online are often controlled by superpowers like Facebook.

The biggest chunk of people who listen to podcasts use the audio app that comes standard with iPhones, but Apple hasn’t gotten nearly as involved in podcasts as it has in apps. Podcasts were for awhile an unruly but glorious free for all.

There was no single moment when podcasting started to become more like an exclusive nightclub. But Spotify’s decisions starting a few years ago to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for exclusive rights to what people like Rogan and the podcast company Gimlet Media produced were when podcasts started to chart the same path as Netflix.

If you love Rogan, you can listen to his show only on Spotify. (Spotify bought two more podcast technology companies this week.) Fans of the true crime podcast series “My Favorite Murder” or the entrepreneur interviews on “How I Built This” have to use Amazon’s music app to listen to the newest episodes.

Ashley Carman, who writes about the podcasting business for The Verge, called 2021 the year that “platforms came for our ears,” with Facebook, YouTube, The New York Times and Sirius XM showing that they have bigger ambitions in podcasts, too.

And that happened because companies want our ears and attention. “It changed when podcasting became a business strategy for these companies,” said Tatiana Cirisano, a music industry analyst and consultant with MIDiA Research.

Spotify has pretty much the same songs that are available a bunch of other places online, and it has a tough time turning a profit from music. Podcasts, especially popular ones that people can find only on Spotify, might be the company’s ticket to enduring financial success. Nearly 30 percent of Americans listen to podcasts each week, and audiences and advertising sales are growing fast. Podcasts have become a cultural force. That is a delicious target for companies.

Powerful companies taking more control over podcasts has its benefits. It’s easier to find stuff you might like because Amazon, Spotify or YouTube might suggest options for you to discover. Spotify has clever podcast ideas that take advantage of its mix of music and podcasts, including shows that combine songs with host banter similar to radio DJ morning shows.

But it’s also a bummer that podcasts are being tamed. As soon as something gets popular and potentially lucrative enough, digital services that are relatively uncontrolled become a land grab for tech gatekeepers. And with that land grab, we’ll probably see a bit less creative freedom.

  • He wants to revive a faded American icon: My colleague Don Clark has an in-depth look at Pat Gelsinger, the chief executive of Intel, the computer chip company that was instrumental in making technology as we know it. Gelsinger wants to help Intel regain lost ground in the most sophisticated chips and corral government funding to make the U.S. a chip manufacturing powerhouse again. No pressure.

  • Your bionic eyes are now another obsolete gadget: IEEE Spectrum reports on retinal technology that was implanted in people’s bodies, and then abandoned by the manufacturer.

  • Three former investment bankers named Cole, Steve and Sal cooked up a system to book online reservations to hot New York restaurants months in advance and then doled them out (for free) to people on Telegram. They got caught, Eater reported.

A woman in the Boston area lost wool mittens that had sentimental value, and put up posters to try to get them back. There is a “mitten miracle” happy ending!

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