“The name of the game has been to ‘do less with less’,” said a producer at the company, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. NPR announced a hiring freeze last November, and its summer intern and fellowship programs have been paused indefinitely.
Strong growth in podcast listening and aggressive maneuvering from deep-pocketed companies helped drive the original gold rush. Since 2014, the year “Serial” debuted, the percentage of Americans 12 and over who have listened to a podcast has jumped to 62 percent from 30 percent, for a total of 177 million, according to a report released last year by the analytics firm Edison Research. In 2018, Spotify began acquiring the exclusive rights to podcasts to attract new users and diversify its business. Amazon followed suit, stocking up on original and exclusive podcasts for its services Audible and Amazon Music.
Payouts for content publishers soared. Spotify paid $230 million for Gimlet Media in 2019 and around $200 million more for The Ringer, Bill Simmons’s sports media company, in 2020. Later that year, as consumers spent even more time listening to podcasts during the pandemic, Amazon bought the popular podcast studio Wondery for $300 million, while SiriusXM paid $325 million for the platform and publisher Stitcher.
Individual podcasts with popular hosts fetched similarly lofty sums. Spotify spent more than $200 million for “The Joe Rogan Experience” in 2020 and $60 million for Alex Cooper’s “Call Her Daddy” in June 2021. That same month, Amazon paid up to $80 million for “Smartless,” hosted by the actors Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Sean Hayes, according to Bloomberg.
In addition to traditional advertising, the platforms hoped to recoup their investments through strategies including premium subscription offerings and intellectual property deals with Hollywood. But audiences have been slow to sign up for paid subscriptions to content they’re accustomed to getting for free, and film and television development — a notoriously inexact science — hasn’t proved to be a reliable moneymaker.
Last year, as macroeconomic factors cooled ad spending, darkening forecasts at both new content businesses, like Facebook, and traditional ones, like Warner Bros. Discovery, formerly rosy-eyed podcast executives began hitting the brakes.