Answers from an Actual Podcast Critic
Your friendly neighborhood podcast journalist is back to answer some questions and give some context as to the state of podcast writing today. I’ve been paid to cover media in some shape or form for over a decade now, but my podcasting stint started in 2018. A lot has changed since then. Little did I know when I started my little blog that I was jumping into the fray during the last gasp of what might be later dubbed the golden age of podcast reporting.
What should I expect after submitting my press release?
A fair question, and an appropriate follow-up to my previous Simplecast piece about contacting the press.
The short answer is to expect nothing. Very few people consistently write about podcasts outside of a handful of passionate bloggers who’re pulling down triple-digit views on their Substack and Wordpress posts if they’re lucky.
I spoke with former media critic and podcast producer Emily St. James about the current state of podcast critique and the general state of media critique overall: “I used to be a really diehard TV critic. It's impossible to cover television now. There's too much. It’s always been impossible to cover books and music [because] there's too much of that. We're reaching a space where there's too many movies [for one person to cover]. There's just too much stuff. All of those fields have established gatekeepers, you know?”
St. James continued: “If Universal Music Group picks up an indie band, that’s a vote of confidence from a big gatekeeper within that space. If I make an indie movie [and] Hulu picks it up, that’s not necessarily going to guarantee coverage, but that's like a mark that someone watched this and paid attention to it. There isn't that in podcasting. Occasionally you'll get something like Morgan Givens’ Flyest Fables getting picked up by NPR, but it’s really unusual.”
The same is very much true in podcasting. For every press release a timid independent production sends out, there’s a dozen TV companies in podcast-shaped trench coats firing off press releases for a show with yet another marketable face who’ll be the only returning cast member if the show gets picked up for TV. Or, even worse, press releases for individual episodes of a weekly interview podcast.
That’s not an exaggeration for comedic effect, either. That’s a lived experience straight from the Gaddis inbox, baby.
Where should I try to get my podcast covered?
I addressed this somewhat last time, but here’s the honest truth: find the crunchiest blogs and newsletters out there. The new and little people plugging away and consistently doing their best to platform smaller podcasts are gonna be the ones to keep an eye on. There are a few old hats doing good work, but they’re few and far between. Of every critic I personally knew to write reviews in 2018, none are still in the game.
In fact, as far as I can find there aren’t any writers for major publications (from relatively smaller outfits up to places like The Verge) who actively write podcast criticism these days. I’ve found a handful of people who’ve busted their asses to get regular gigs writing coverage consistently. A show of note did something worth noting, so they write a rehash of the press release that podcast sent to promote that noteworthy thing. There’s a place in the world for this content. Hell, I write it on a weekly basis for a freelance job. It tends to dominate the media space for how quick it is to write something guaranteed good SEO. Even then, there aren’t enough people doing coverage to truly gain traction outside their podcasting circles.
“Okay, here's an example of a way–if this were TV–podcasts might be covered. Michael Hobbes left You’re Wrong About,” said St. James. “YWA is a big show. It gets a lot of coverage in the media (and by ‘a lot of coverage’ I mean it’s been written about a handful of times in a handful of places). If Sarah Marshall was like ‘this is the new co-host of YWA,’ in a world where there was a robust podcast media sphere people would listen to the first handful of episodes and be like ‘this new co host brings this to the show,’ or ‘this is why we miss Michael.’ That's what happens when there's a new host of something like The Tonight Show.
“That assumes a robust podcast criticism sphere, which assumes a robust criticism sphere for anything. Criticism is dying as we speak. I think that for a lot of people Rotten Tomatoes filled hole that a good critic used to, which has devalued criticism, which has led to a situation where fewer and fewer critics are working.”
Podcasting has evolved past its earlier stages where success in the field was denoted by getting good downloads and brand deals. Now, the very medium itself is being used more as a supplemental boost for other forms of media than its own unique entity. Major names in entertainment now use podcasts to test out IP ideas instead of fully committing to filming a TV pilot that might flop.
Then there’s the growing trend of celebrities hosting TV rewatch podcasts about the shows they’re in, bastardizing the DVD cast commentary into a weekly chat show format. Now there’s dozens of new shows to contend with that have built-in fanbases before even approaching the concept of a podcast produced by a normal human being.
Here’s St. James on why she’s not writing as many reviews these days: “I stepped back from criticism for many reasons, but one of them was there’s too much stuff. I couldn't cover all of it on my own and I got burnt out, it just became an endless chore. Now take what I was experiencing with television and multiply it times however many hundreds of more podcasts there are. Yeah, that's just a recipe for some bullshit.”
Podcast criticism is here. It has been here for years. It doesn’t need to be jumpstarted, reinvented, or discovered.
What can I do to help foster criticism?
Good question. The easy answer is “give critics money and attention before they burn out”, but with podcast producers that’s a tricky proposal without creating giant conflicts of interest.
Turn up for writers even when they’re not directly helping you. Share the heck out of their work when they do cover you. Keep track of indie outlets that might use crowdfunding or subscription models to keep their own lights on without relying on SEO and ad revenue. This year alone, multiple independent sites specifically focused on podcasting have either shut down or reduced themselves down to a clickbaity shell of what they once were. Media outlets want you to engage with their stuff, so tell them what will make you click. Engage with what you enjoy, and consider posting constructive criticism in the comments on what didn’t live up (without being rude or mean at critics; they’re doing their best out here). I can’t tell you how many pieces I have that are secretly adored or hated, but I have no clue until people come up to me in person at conferences.
What can I do to help foster criticism but also I’m an editor?
On the off chance someone higher up the food chain at any established pop culture websites slash legacy entertainment media is reading: It’s 2022. It’s time to recognize podcasts as a genre worthy of both criticism and coverage on the scale gaming gets now. Any of you in the media industry over the age of thirty should remember the absolute hell that was mainstream game coverage as the internet reached mainstream saturation. That’s what’s happening to podcasts right now when we could just skip that step entirely.
Gaming had decades of nonsense ‘debate’ online about whether it ‘counts’ as an artform. It led to Roger Ebert, one of the most beloved mainstream critics to ever live, posting the piece “Video games can never be art.” It’s so bad I argue it should be enshrined at the entrance of the inevitable Museum of Bad Takes. For better or worse, late-period Ebert was very much a grumpy old man you loved if he shared your opinions and hated if he didn’t, but that piece is bad enough it reads like a pissy live-tweet sesh fired off at the end of a particularly bad day.
That said, it’s wonderful evidence for how new art forms need experts. Send a television journalist to cover a book beat and they’ll try to draw the same conclusions about the publishing industry as they did with TV. Send a movie critic to effectively live-blog a TED Talk about whether games qualify as art… you get that thing. Time and time again outlets underestimate podcasts and send some perfectly good writer into a medium they have no experience with and the writer comes back ravaged from a social media firestorm quote-tweeting them into the dirt over an off-the-cuff claim. Podcast app X is not ‘the Netflix of podcasting,’ Podcast Y is not the ‘reinventing audio drama for the 21st century,’ or ‘bringing back radio drama.’ I promise you whatever claim from a press agent saying the podcast they represent is doing something for the first time in the world is full of it.
All of which are things someone who regularly covers and engages with the world of podcasting would know. Funny how that works. Podcasts are their own beat. Treat them like it.
What should I do on social media?
One final request: please stop tweeting “where is podcast criticism” or “why don’t we have podcast critics?” Sometimes it comes from someone who’s clearly in their feelings about their podcast not getting into Hot Pod or nominated for one of the yearly award shows, but it also can stem from those who simply haven’t put time into looking for anything outside what Vulture or their timelines told them about.
Podcast criticism is here. It has been here for years. It doesn’t need to be jumpstarted, reinvented, or discovered. It needs money and support. It needs more than ten cents a word or nights spent typing away at “Top 10 Joe Rogan Experience Episodes That Start With F” to drive AdSense pennies.
The industry is geared towards the already-successful institutions maintaining their momentum. It’s up to the little folk to generate momentum the hard way if we’re to make any headway.
We’re all in this together.