Podcast News

Who shook up the podcast landscape in 2020?

Who’s pushing the form to evolve, challenging the status quo, and otherwise shaking up the industry? We asked podcast creators, leaders and experts to tell us who they’d select as the unofficial Podcast Person of the Year. 

A look at the creators, the changemakers and the corporation

Whether through artistry, advocacy or audacious business, several forces shook up the world of podcasting this year. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

If the podcast world was an ecosystem, it would host all kinds of creatures. 

There'd be the ones that still resemble radio, and others that have evolved into something we've never heard before. There'd be the small ones that thrive in niches, and the large ones that cover a lot of terrain.

But size is not the same as impact, and there were many forces to be reckoned with, in all areas of the industry, in 2020.

This year we asked podcast creators, leaders and experts to tell us who they'd select as the unofficial Podcast Person of the Year. Who's pushing the form to evolve, challenging the status quo, and otherwise shaking up the industry?

Here are some of their answers.

The creators

Most respondents chose creative groups and people as this year's poster child, from Roman Mars — celebrating 10 years of 99% Invisible — to Ashley C. Ford, a podcaster's podcaster who brings value to every conversation. Others applauded intrepid teams, like those at Mermaid Palace, In The Dark and You're Wrong About.  

But only two creators earned multiple nominations.

The New York Times recently published a profile with a telling headline: The Inexhaustible Hustle of Hrishikesh Hirway. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

First up, musician and podcaster Hrishikesh Hirway, who's turned his music-decoding podcast Song Exploder into an adaptable hit. 

"Song Exploder sits at the very center of creative culture," said Glynn Washington, the host of Snap Judgment, referencing the show's deep roots in the music industry, its ventures into the movie soundtrack and musical theatre worlds, and its big Netflix adaptation that debuted in October. "Everything Hrishikesh touches turns to gold."

Charlotte Cooper of PRX also highlighted Hirway, dubbing him a "podcast machine."

Everything Hrishikesh touches turns to gold.- Glynn Washington, host of Snap Judgment

Cooper noted that Hirway also hosts Partners, a podcast that demystifies creative collaboration, and Home Cooking, a delightful quarantine cooking podcast he co-hosts with Samin Nosrat. All his shows have made it on to Best of 2020 lists. 

"He has this wonderful knack of getting out of the way to make other people's stories shine, but it has been a delight to hear him pun away and bring brightness to any day or meal with Samin through the bluest months of 2020 Covid times."

At the tail end of 2019, Macleans magazine called Falen Johnson "one to watch in 2020." And watch we did. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

Another creator who inspired her peers was Falen Johnson. In September, The Secret Life of Canada co-host was also tapped to host Unreserved, CBC's radio show for Indigenous community, culture, and conversation. By December, the show was listed as a favourite of the year by Apple Podcasts.

Her vision and work is unrelenting.- Ryan McMahon on Falen Johnson

Johnson is passionate about documenting the history of the Americas from an Indigenous perspective, and like Hirway, she often draws on another artform.

"Not only is her podcast work outstanding, but she is one of the most important voices in Canadian theatre," says Ryan McMahon of Makoons Media Group. "Her vision and work is unrelenting." 

"She is just killing it in the industry right now," agreed Kaniehtiio Horn, host of Coffee with my Ma. "She is hardworking and thoughtful and a badass. She deserves all of the recognition she gets and more." 

No wonder Macleans listed Johnson among 20 Canadians to watch in 2020.

The changemakers

A renewed push for racial equity was a major theme this year. But in a world of talk, one U.K. audio production company wanted to see who'd walk the walk. 

London-based Broccoli Content, led by founder Renay Richardson, spearheaded several calls to action in early June — from paying interns to refusing to join unrepresentative panel discussions. Their call out caught the attention of many creators and companies all over the world.

Renay Richardson is the CEO of Broccoli Content, a production company pushing for equity in the podcast industry. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

"We want to challenge our peers in the audio industry to pledge to five simple actions that a company of any size should be able to participate in," the team wrote on their website. 

And companies of all sizes did sign on, from individuals and small studios to major corporations and public broadcasters — including our own team here at CBC Podcasts. 

"It can feel like pushing a rock up a hill to get the media to open up, but they've had dozens of organizations pledge, from the BBC to the CBC," said CBC Podcasts executive producer Arif Noorani. "Now we all just have to make the pledges a reality."

Others, including Kellie Riordan of Deadset Studios and Caroline Crampton of HotPod, agreed that Richardson's team deserved recognition for swiftly rising to meet this moment. 

"[Richardson's] work on the Equality in Audio Pact has been very influential in persuading the audio industry to be better on diversity and anti-racism," said Crampton. 

Over 300 signatories have taken the pledge, including The Guardian, BBC Radio, Luminary Media, Spotify UK and many, many more. 

[Renay Richardson's] work on the Equality in Audio Pact has been very influential in persuading the audio industry to be better on diversity and anti-racism.- Caroline Crampton, HotPod

Another important change this year was to the very way we index and categorize podcasts. 

Dave Jones and Adam Curry of The Podcast Index have built a database that's free to use for anyone, and a formidable challenger to Apple Podcasts' mega popular index.

James Cridland, editor of podcast industry watchdog Podnews, sees this as a breakthrough. He argued that the Podcast Index has innovated more in the last three months than most of the industry has in the last ten years.

The Podcast Index promises to be and remain a core, categorized index that will always be available for free, for any use. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

"They have managed to get some of the brightest brains together to innovate in podcasting technology — working on new tags and revenue ideas to help podcasting move forward."

The Podcast Index is an organization to watch in 2021, added Cridland. 

The corporation

And then there was Spotify. Because we asked who "shook up" the industry, the Swedish media giant was on the tip of several tongues.

"No other answer can quite match what Spotify did in 2020," said Kevin Goldberg of Discover Pods, pointing to their purchases of The Ringer and Megaphone in 2020, closely following their purchases of Parcast, Anchor, and Gimlet in 2019. 

"They also landed arguably the biggest exclusive deal to date with Joe Rogan," added Goldberg, referencing their licensing deal with The Joe Rogan Experience, a polarizing podcast with a massive global following.

No other answer can quite match what Spotify did in 2020.- Kevin Goldberg, Discover Pods

Dila Velazquez of Corus and Justine Kelly of ABC agreed.

"An organization that drops $100 million on one podcast surely needs to get the award of 'Shook up the Industry' in 2020," said Kelly.

They also landed exclusive deals with high-profile names like Michelle Obama, Kim Kardashian West and The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2020. 

"You can argue whether or not their walled garden approach is good or bad for the industry, but you can't argue they've shaken it up," said Goldberg.

Spotify's big moves in the podcast industry, like deals in the hundreds of millions, regularly generate headlines. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

Quotations in this article were edited for length and clarity. Researched and produced by Glory Omotayo. Written and packaged by Fabiola Melendez Carletti.

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