“SECRET group of geniuses KILL for fun.” In a recent video podcast on his true crime YouTube channel MrBallen, John Allen tells the story of a mysterious poisoning involving Mensa that took place in rural Florida. The video of Allen, wearing his signature blue plaid shirt and backwards cap, speaking insistently into the camera, has garnered close to 4m views.
MrBallen is an example of the blurring of the lines between podcasts and Youtube. His YouTube channel launched in 2020 and counts more than 6 million subscribers. The podcast – available on the likes of Spotify and Apple – followed in February, and is already attracting up to 7m monthly downloads.
While we mostly know podcasts as something to tune into while exercising or driving, the overlap between video content and audio podcasts is changing user habits and pitting video giant YouTube against audio-native Spotify.
Allen is not the only one bridging the divide; YouTube stars like Logan Paul and h3h3 have also branched out into podcasts. It’s going in the other direction too: some of Spotify’s star podcasters like Joe Rogan and Call Her Daddy’s Alex Cooper already post video podcasts to the platform, and it’s slowly rolling out the ability to upload video podcasts to more creators.
While Allen’s audio and video output streams are still separate at the moment (with the podcasts featuring longer, more in-depth audio-only content), Allen has plans to merge the two operations at some point.
A study by market research firm Cumulus published in May found YouTube is already the most popular platform for podcasts. It won the market without really trying; now, it’s getting serious. The company has launched a dedicated beta podcast landing page, hired a podcast executive to lead its efforts in the medium and offered popular podcasters and podcast networks grants of up to $300,000 to create video versions of their shows, according to Bloomberg.
It’s a sign of growing competition in the space that’s bad news for Spotify, which has invested about $1bn in podcasting in recent years. Even Gen Z’s beloved short-form video platform TikTok is thinking about launching a music service that would cover podcasts.
Much like the tendency of distantly related crustaceans to keep evolving into crabs, sooner or later platforms have a tendency to start cannibalising each other’s core features. This time, a medium is caught in the crossfire – raising the question of what differentiates a video podcast from the vlogs that YouTube first popularised.
For now, most video podcasts feature the hosts in the studio recording the audio – a genre of podcasts with a clear counterpart in TV talkshows. But there are types of podcasts where a move to video could shift the experience more fundamentally.
QCode is a podcast company best known for its narrative fiction shows featuring Hollywood talent, high production values and immersive sound design, a number of which have been optioned for television and film adaptations.
In response to the video podcast trend, QCode’s chief strategy officer, Steve Wilson, says the company is thinking about what kind of video elements could enhance the experience. But he cautions that for fictional podcasts, using your imagination can be part of the appeal. “It makes our podcasts a little bit closer to something like reading a great book, where you’re encouraged to see the characters in the way that you envision them,” he says.
If it was made today, the 2014 hit podcast Serial, an investigative analysis of the murder of a teenage girl, probably wouldn’t take the form a video podcast. But if it was made in 10 years’ time? “Maybe,” says Steve Jones, content director at podcast company Crowd Network. “That’s the way the industry is going.” But this leads back into the swamp of semantics: if Serial was a video podcast, wouldn’t that just be a documentary?
Some believe an over liberal use of the term “podcast” is to blame for any confusion. “With the rise of the podcast, there’s more content that is positioning itself as a podcast,” says Wilson. In the pre-podcast age, a content creator might have made an educational video about the first world war. “Now, someone’s going to call that a podcast, whereas five years ago it was just a video on the war – or a vlog,” he says.
But video podcasting could open up a new horizon for creators. Allen says fans tell him they prefer to watch his content. “This [medium] allows them to see my very real emotions come out as I take them through the story that we’ve spent countless hours preparing,” he says. “Video also gives me another layer to play with… I can just throw some visuals on screen to support whatever I’m saying.”
At Crowd Network, the motive behind video podcasts first came from a desire to offer audiences a “little bit extra”, says Jones. “But increasingly we’ve found that it is a whole new audience and actually there isn’t that much of a crossover.”
Joe Marler, an English professional rugby union player and the host of The Joe Marler Show, says this is true for his podcast, which took the leap into video this summer. The fact that video is more shareable than audio – think the viral clip of Elon Musk smoking a blunt on Joe Rogan’s podcast – means users are more likely to stumble over segments on social media. “I don’t know the science behind it; I just know that the algorithms push the content far better than the podcast apps,” says Marler. As a result, the audience members watching the podcast tend to be younger.
Marler says that although his new studio cost about four or five times more than his audio studio, he’s not trying to monetise video content separately – it’s more about promoting his show across visual channels. This is true for most podcasters, given that it’s harder to monetise YouTube than podcast content, although Jake Warren, CEO and founder of podcast company Message Heard, says that splitting audiences across different mediums is commercially risky. On Spotify, creators will also be able to monetise their videos in the same way as their audio podcasts, via subscriptions.
It’s not just YouTube; TikTok’s bite-size content is also encouraging the trend for video podcasts. Crowd Network is launching a show with a TikTok star this autumn and Jones says they made the decision not to release a 45-minute edit of the podcast, because the company isn’t sure there’s an audience for it. They may be proved wrong, but Jones says they’re planning to focus on sharing clips on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube Shorts (where videos must be a minute or less in length). A medium typified by the languid pace of Rogan’s three-hour interviews is about to get a lot snappier.
Among industry players, the Spotify v YouTube rivalry is hailed as another sign that podcasting is the hottest thing in media. But some worry that a pivot to video might mean sacrificing the soul of the industry. Warren stresses that “audio is a special and distinct medium in its own right”, while videography is an entirely different craft. “I hope we don’t forget the power of audio, just to try to game an algorithm.”