More and more YouTube creators are starting podcasts. We talked with Vsauce2’s Kevin Lieber about why he started “The Create Unknown” podcast, and why more YouTubers will be expanding to podcasts in 2019.
I have spent the last six months interviewing people from all over podcasting. Independent podcasters, recording house directors, sound designers, major podcast Creators, network directors, and community facilitators. I learned an infinite amount from each of them, which of course led to a long list of things I needed to learn more about. But when Dave Keine – Founder of Triangle Content and podcast industry leader – mentioned a possible correlation between YouTube and podcasting while I interviewed him, that idea landed itself at the top of my list. If there’s a way to predict what may be coming in podcasting by examining current or past trends in YouTube, I’d really like to know about it.
See, both YouTube (which I will treat as a medium because there is no serious online video platform that can compete with it and because people are called “YouTubers” not “online video creators”) and podcasts are rapidly growing forms of alternative media and recent years have seen an interesting entangling of the two as Creators move between them. YouTubers are starting podcasts and podcasters are posting videos of themselves making their podcasts, and the podcasting industry is wondering what that will mean.
I was wondering too, and since Dave Keine got me started on all of these questions it seemed only fair I reach out to him for help in finding the answers. Dave was gracious enough to connect me with Kevin Lieber, a relatively new podcaster who produces his show through Triangle Content. Don’t let that micro-description fool you, Kevin is a big deal. Kevin is the host of Vsauce2, a YouTube channel that makes videos centered on “mind-blowing science, technology, and people” that has been creating family-friendly content since 2010 and amassed over 4 million subscribers. His new podcast, The Create Unknown, interviews YouTube Creators in an attempt to remove the curtain that separates Creators and consumers to reveal more of what it takes to be a success on YouTube.
With so much experience in YouTube and a rapidly growing fanbase in podcasting, Kevin was the perfect person to help me see the connections between YouTube and podcasts. But just noticing the connections isn’t enough, so I’ve paired each of our observations with what it means for the industries and their futures. Here are four major trends you can expect to see:
Early on in our conversation, Kevin mentioned that a strong tie between podcasting and YouTube is their shared definition as “alternative media” despite their consistent growth. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, here’s a look into just how big YouTube has become:
Honestly, even if you were under a rock, you were probably watching YouTube videos when you were bored or needed to learn how to do something. Despite the huge role YouTube plays in our everyday entertainment and education, it isn’t quite mainstream. That designation belongs to major news outlets, radio, books, television, journals, and film. Podcasts are even less likely to be considered mainstream despite 26% of Americans reporting regular listening.
When Kevin and I were discussing the gap between what millions regularly consume and what is officially considered mainstream media, he said that “we’re still in this weird transition between new and old media.” That transition means that traditional media outlets are focused on keeping their spot “on top” and often accomplish this by refusing to recognize alternative media except in moments that cast it in a less than flattering light. Specifically, Kevin mentioned that the New York Times would rather report on YouTuber Logan Paul’s disturbing video in the Suicide Forest of Japan than the fact that Vsauce has donated over $100,000 to Alzheimer’s research because the former is both offensive and supports the idea that Creators in alternative media should not be taken seriously.
Kevin guesses that it will take “another full generation” of consumers to see a major shift in what is considered mainstream media, but there is no doubt that mediums like podcasts and YouTube will drive that shift. In the meantime, however, Creators in alternative media will continue to branch out into mainstream media by diversifying their content. When I researched top YouTube influencers, almost all of them had dabbled in either television, film, or books in attempts to move into the spotlight of mainstream media, occasionally sacrificing the quality of their content to do so. I asked Kevin why we see this happen time and again and he admitted that recognition from major media sources validates a creator’s work.
For example, Kevin was invited to be a guest on a television show because of his status as a famous YouTuber that makes science videos. Kevin’s regular science videos cover everything from mind-bending paradoxes to dice rolling death games to explaining the latest technological advances in robots and medicine. He takes really difficult concepts and makes them easily understandable and entertaining, but to be on television, he had to make slime. You know, that colored glue that comes in a bowl for kids to play with? Yeah, that was it, but he was happy to do it because “it’s something [his] family and friends will get excited about.” Similarly, podcast Creators were incredibly excited and shared the video widely when Saturday Night Live did their sketch “The Poddys,” not because of any comedic genius, but because a major television show was acknowledging podcasts and Creators’ work. Television, and mainstream media as a whole, offers a unique kind of validation that we should expect both YouTubers and podcasters to reach for by conforming their content to mainstream mediums.
When I originally talked to Dave Keine, he mentioned the YouTuber movement into podcasting and we wondered what that meant for the industry. I spend a lot of time interviewing small podcasts and popular podcasts that started very small, so I worried this movement of YouTubers into podcasting may detract from the audiences of those smaller shows. As a result of that fear, Dave and I discussed whether or not this influx of Creators who already had a major following on another platform would be harmful to independent podcasts or detract from their audience. Dave and several other industry leaders I talked to feel certain that these YouTube Creators will only expand the number of podcast listeners as a whole which will benefit everyone, but I had to ask why the movement was happening in the first place. Kevin and I uncovered three major reasons:
Each of these makes it incredibly easy for Creators to move from YouTube to podcasts and there is a growing number of role models to follow. In our interview, Kevin said that “there are clear examples where [Creators] are wildly, wildly successful on YouTube and then you can see how they can be wildly, wildly successful on podcasting.” He specifically cited Jenna Marbles and Ethan Klein from H3H3 as examples of YouTubers whose popularity has followed them from one platform to the other and suggests that this may become a “natural career arc.” The expectation is that more YouTubers will grow the overall audience of the industry and increase total listeners, which is certainly something all of us can look forward to. After all, the point of podcasting is global domination. And on that note, let’s talk money.
My boss suggested that when I write this I say “online videos” instead of YouTube because YouTube is a platform not a medium. I had to object. YouTube has such a monopoly on the online video market that Creators call themselves YouTubers. If we’re honest, in this case, the platform owns the medium. That ownership of a medium is nonexistent in podcasting, as the content can be posted on several platforms. Though Apple can currently claim 55.5% of all downloads, there is still the understanding that if they provide unsatisfactory service or fail to keep up with other platforms’ latest features, Creators can choose to go elsewhere and encourage fans to do the same. Kevin summed it up well when he said “with podcasting there’s actual competition, where there is no competition, at all, in video [platforms].”
That lack of competition means that YouTube has less motivation to keep its Creators happy because it can, to an extent, rest on the idea that those Creators aren’t going anywhere. Unless you’re a YouTuber yourself or you love reading up on industry news, you may not immediately see how big the issue here is. But David Pakman can help explain a bit. See, David is a successful YouTuber with 353,000 subscribers to his channel and enough revenue to run that channel full time and pay for a small staff. At least until recently, when YouTube began making changes to its advertising algorithm which attempted to remove major advertisers from content that was less than family-friendly.
Remember, while YouTubers certainly make some money off of what they advertise within their videos (similar to podcasters), they make the vast majority of their profits from the ads assigned to play before or throughout the video. In other words, they are mostly paid by YouTube, not directly by advertisers. After the algorithm changed and those ads were suddenly not assigned to videos flagged as unfriendly to advertisers, David cited making as little as 6 cents a day and the need to crowdfund to keep the channel going. YouTube claims they are reviewing the algorithm and adjusting it to better support Creators, but it is clear that Creators would benefit from diversifying into mediums that are not wholly run by a single entity.
We can expect that YouTubers will continue to be dissatisfied with YouTube’s almost absolute control over content and revenue. That dissatisfaction will drive Creators to podcasting where they have more control and are not punished for whatever content they choose to make, or where they are forced to appeal an algorithm’s decision in order to maintain their livelihood. Podcasting, which offers multiple reputable and high-performing platforms and an increasing number of advertisers, is an attractive option for YouTubers seeking more control.
When Kevin and I discussed the question of YouTube’s monetization practices, I had to ask if he thought that the podcast industry would continue to be a steady source of revenue for Creators as it grows. Kevin paused for a second, looking away from his laptop camera and thinking for a minute before he answered. Slowly, he admitted that yes, he thinks so. But… “I don’t know if the whole having ads in content – obviously that will continue to be a thing – but I don’t know how long that will be a reliable way for people to build businesses,” Kevin said. I was intrigued, as advertising is what most podcasters are hoping to attain to as far as leverage for revenue. Kevin explained his doubt by citing the growing amount of content in comparison to the limited number of businesses looking to advertise. So, if Creators aren’t going to build consistent revenue through advertisers, how are they going to do it?
“I see community building being something that is much more important going forward,” Kevin said, pointing toward crowdfunding as the most likely way that Creators support their shows. This can take a myriad of forms from donations to merchandise to extra paid content to live shows, all offering extra revenue and more ways to connect with listeners. Kevin cited Vsauce’s line of Curiosity Boxes – filled with math and science toys and brain teasers – as an example of the success of community revenue. But Kevin also pointed out that there may be a bump in the road for podcasting gaining that community support: namely that podcasting is a uniquely solitary experience. Kevin pointed out that “YouTube is also a social platform. So, you’re going to have people who are on YouTube all day leaving comments and talking with each other.” Podcasting has no built-in community. Podcasters are forced to create community in places separate from where episodes are posted, and that makes creating that community more difficult and possibly less effective.
Of course, some Creators have built thriving communities for their listeners in a variety of places. The Podcasts We Listen To, Podcast Movement, MBMBAMBino Podcasters, and NYT Podcast Club have all used Facebook Groups to create thriving communities for their listeners. Reddit has also become a home for podcast fans through r/podcasts and r/podcasting. Twitter has even been used for fans across shows through hashtags like #AudioDramaSunday. Even business apps like Slack have been used to connect listeners and Creators with The Hashtag Podcasters and PodToPod Slacks gathering substantial users. Email newsletters are also a way to keep listeners informed and work well for the Earbuds Podcast Collective and Podcast Brunch Club, though these don’t allow for much interaction between fans. Each of these fulfills the function of community and do it very well, but that community is still outsourced to a place separated from the medium itself.
If podcasters are going to become dependent on crowdfunding, then community will have to come from somewhere. Either the existing platforms will incorporate a social element, podcasters will continue to outsource to personal sites and traditional social media, or it will begin to fall behind other alternative media sources. But don’t worry, despite what my mom tells me, I’m not that special, so I’m obviously not the first person to recognize the podcast industry’s need for socializing. Apps like Swoot, Breaker, and Banter are working to establish themselves as the place for podcast audiences to find community. We can expect to see Creators both providing communities and encouraging their listeners to engage in those communities as crowdfunding becomes more and more of a necessity to producing and curating great content. For example, in the first two weeks of Podchaser’s creator profiles release, over 3,000 Creators have built their profile because they see it as an added and easy way for listeners to find and follow Creators more effectively.
Kevin and I discussed a lot during our interview, but he ended with a point that’s worth keeping in mind: “we’re so ‘early days’ in all of this.” As well informed as these predictions are and as sure as we both may feel about them, media is always in flux and the people creating content are constantly adapting. The game is always changing, so predicting the future will always be a guessing game. But at the center of all the things we discussed, all the implications, are Creators and consumers. In the end, you’re in control. So make great content, enjoy great content, and challenge the services that host that content to respect and listen to Creators and consumers alike. We may not be able to predict the future, but we are building it, so let’s do it right.