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LCN Says

Wrestle with PESTLE: the podcast industry

updated on 23 May 2023

Reading time: nine minutes

This LCN Says is part of LawCareers.Net’s ‘Wrestle with PESTLE (WWP)’ series, which looks at various business case studies using the PESTLE technique.

Read the previous WWP on strikes – workers versus government and listen to the brand new commercial connect podcast episode on strikes.

PESTLE stands for:

  • political;
  • economic;
  • sociological;
  • technological;
  • legal; and
  • environmental.

This technique involves using these six external factors to analyse the impact on a business and/or industry.

Case study: the rise of the podcasting industry

In 2005 the New Oxford American Dictionary chose the word ‘podcast’ as its word of the year. Clearly enough people had begun creating, listening to and sharing audio content in this format for the word ‘podcast’ to secure this accolade. Nearly 20 years later and, for many, podcasts are a daily part of our lives, with topics ranging from true crime and comedy to influencers and celebrities simply sitting in front of microphones and chatting. And, of course, podcasts can even help you further your legal career!

From expert-led podcasts such as The LawCareers.Net Podcast, BBC Radio 4 Law in Action and Law Pod UK, to student-led podcasts such as Linklaters LLP’s innovation podcast series, Linkubator, the list of legal listening is endless. But what impact has the recent podcast boom had on the business world? And how do legal podcasts fit in with your commercial awareness beyond developing it? Keep reading to analyse the impact of this modern phenomenon using the PESTLE technique. 

Political impact

Almost ironically, when you google the terms ‘politics’ and ‘podcasts’, the results show a range of podcasts across the political spectrum. In a fast-paced world, people are keen to consume even faster-paced content, especially on hard-hitting topics such as politics. In fact, episodes of the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast and the BBC’s Political Thinking with Nick Robinson regularly make it into The Times weekly top 100 podcasts list. In the UK, the Brexitcast podcast shot to popularity following the UK’s decision to leave the EU in 2016 and ran through until 2020. The Radio Times described the podcast as “some geeky gossip about Brexit from Westminster and Brussels” evidencing the fact that it made politics more accessible as “gossip”.

It’s also likely that podcasts reach a broader range of people than standard media sources. For example, podcasters often touch on their personal politics while discussing their ‘usual’ topic. This makes issues more digestible, as they aren’t coming from an expert and instead a reliable, personal voice the listener is perhaps familiar with. This in turn makes politics more accessible for people to listen to and may even encourage younger generations to interact with politics earlier. In this way, podcasts have increased the accessibility of politics with ‘ordinary’ people speaking about their experiences and sharing them with a wider audience.

However, Nick Hilton, former producer of the Spectator and New Statesman podcasts, told that “the market for British political podcasts is really small”. He added that the “listening figures for the best performing newspaper and magazine podcasts are somewhere between 50 and 100,000 people per episode, which is, in the grand scheme of podcasting, really not very much”. There’s of course a valid argument in this, as political podcasts are niche and often attract those who are already politically engaged. That said, it could be argued that podcasts are used as a political device to sway people towards a given political view, as evidenced by an article in the New York Times titled, ‘Podcasts to Inform Your Vote’. Put simply, podcasts can be political but the impact they have on an individual’s politics is yet to be uncovered.

Economic impact

Podcasts have been a growing platform for the past 25 years and they’ve seen huge economic growth during this time – this isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon. In fact, consultancy firm PwC suggests that podcast producers have a strong justification for their optimism. According to PwC’s inquiry, UK podcasting advertising revenue, which is currently £37 million, is set to grow to £64 million by 2025 – 16 times more than the £4 million that the market was worth in 2016.

With such rapid growth, the industry offers existing businesses the chance to increase revenue, be this through increasing brand awareness, creating opportunities for partnership or with paid adverts. Equally, podcasting allows individuals to increase their income and therefore put more ‘back into’ the economy.

Hannah Bloxsome, then a trainee solicitor at TLT LLP, wrote in a Commercial Question for LawCareers.Net in 2020: “Influencer marketing is on the rise with an estimated 45% of the world’s population actively using social media, making it a very attractive platform for brands to use for advertising.” Hannah’s piece referred to the rise of sportswear brand Gymshark, which uses influencers to advertise its latest launches and product lines.

Influencer marketing has since continued to grow, and podcasts have become a huge part of this journey. For example, the NearlyWeds podcast, hosted by ex-Made In Chelsea stars and sweet-brand Candy Kittens founder Jamie Laing and his wife Sophie Laing (Habboo), regularly tops the charts, creating revenue through paid adverting slots. The success of this venture is evidence as to how podcasts have become part of the influencer market, but also how conducive podcasting is to boosting brand awareness and revenue for an existing company, product or individual.

Podcasts are also accessible for consumers, as they’re paid for through advertising, making them free for the listener. Of course, certain platforms such as Apple Music or Spotify charge users to have an ad-free experience on the platform, although it’s worth noting that this doesn’t remove internal ads from the podcast itself. Podcasts can also be fairly low cost in production, while still creating a high revenue, meaning that they’re a good bet for existing businesses. A new app called Wondery has added to the profitability of podcasts, as many creators are now moving over to the platform. Subscribers pay a small fee to listen to episodes early and ad-free, and then a wider audience can listen later for free on the usual streaming platforms.

So, despite recent news in the Guardian that suggests that new podcasts are on the decline, with the number of new shows falling by 80% this year compared to 2021, the podcast industry shows strong signs of continuous economic growth. 

Sociological impact

Audio content is now one of the largest forms of content we consume and it’s believed that more than 28 million adults listen to digital audio every week in the UK according to the Content Marketing Authority. While listening to a podcast people can be driving a car, cooking dinner or walking their dog, so in this sense it’s revolutionised multitasking. People can also listen to a real variety of content, either with others via speaker or by themselves through headphones.

Conscious raising, a type of activism when individuals attempt to focus the attention of a wider group on a given (often underrepresented) cause, is done using podcasts and can create a genuine social impact. As mentioned above, podcasts fit into people’s everyday lives so it’s easier to persuade people to listen to them compared to other types of media. Podcasts can also explore a topic with nuance as there aren’t any limits on podcast length, unlike TikTok videos and Instagram Reels. One 2015 study by RAJAR found that people were listening to podcasts “to be connected to a community of like-minded people”. The opinion-based nature of this platform evidently helps people feel like they’re socially connected with others.

It’s also worth considering that podcasts are often designed for a specific purpose. If you’re an aspiring lawyer, you may find yourself listening to the 15 podcasts all law students should listen to, while if you’re an aspiring politician the 15 best political podcasts may be more up your street. In this sense, a podcast’s social impact is limited to those who choose to listen. Often, people have existing ideas on the topic and are searching for similar minds.

Technological impact

Without developments in technology, this industry wouldn’t exist. From radio to now, the ability to record and distribute audio content has been a key part of technological development. Most recently, the rise of AI has been a concern across the business world and podcasting is no exception. Manos Chourdakis, a research engineer at Nomono (a US-based brand that develops AI-based podcasting tools), spoke to Unite AI: “AI is going to allow us to use less expensive hardware, worse-sounding rooms, and noisier locations and still get good results.”  

AI is also set to revolutionise the way creators upload podcasts. For example, innovative new hosting platform has an integrated system that automatically ‘listens’ to the audio files and stabilises sound levels. Meanwhile, solution provider Descript uses AI in many aspects of podcast engineering, especially noise removal and echo control.

Jay LeBoeuf, head of business and corporate development at Descript, says: “Sometimes producers need to insert digital silence into a podcast. Maybe between edits or to drag out the spacing between sentences, but that sounds incredibly unnatural.” Evidently, AI is set to improve the ease with which podcasts are produced and simplify the process for those who can afford the technology!

On top of this, audio content has been proven to boost on-page search engine optimisation (SEO) performance. The difference that podcasting made to search engines was so significant that in May 2019, Google officially announced that it’d begin to serve podcasts and other forms of audio content through google search.

Legal impact

As with any form of digital or print media, podcasters are subject to media regulations and need to ensure that they aren’t breaking the law. Multinational Australian law firm MinterEllison says that “podcasters should conduct a 'legal stocktake' to assess your legal risk and implement risk-mitigation strategies” in order to avoid legal action being taken against them. It lists the following as legal risks in the podcast industry:

Interestingly, it seems standard for a podcaster to offer ‘advice’ to their listeners, if you listen closely (most of the time) this will be caveated with a disclaimer. For financial podcasts, podcasters must be aware of the regulations around giving financial advice and to ensure that they aren’t at risk of a listener claiming compensation for a financial loss after relying on that podcaster's guidance. In this case, providing a disclaimer prevents the podcaster being responsible for the actions taken by their listeners.

In the case of IP law, Spotify faced action last year over claims of IP theft by food writer Gizzi Erskine and Sydney Lima, the co-creators and hosts of a hit Spotify Original podcast. The creators accused Spotify of “daylight robbery” when the platform rebranded and relaunched the podcast with influencers Saffron Barker and Anastasia Kingsnorth. Meanwhile, Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes’ The High Low podcast has recently been in the spotlight following actor and author Emily Ratajkowski’s launch of her new podcast, High Low. Natalie Rimmer, (IP) lawyer at Farrer & Co LLP, told the Guardian: “It’s quite surprising in a way that [Ratajkowski] opted to go with the High Low name, considering the strong similarity” but that without a registered trademark, there’s no “clear-cut trademark infringement”.

Environmental impact

This is undoubtedly the hardest part of the PESTLE analysis in the case of podcasts, as there’s been little research done into the environmental consequences of podcasting. The most recent I could find was published in 2022 and written by Caroline Ho, a researcher at the faculty of information at the University of Toronto. In her study, Ho gathers statistics from major podcast websites alongside market research firms and data on device energy intensity, concluding that the “paper finds that total distribution of podcasts within the first 30 days of new episodes generates approximately 99,000 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2)”. This is a comparatively small number compared to more traditional media forms, such as television, which require both audio and screen time.

In another recent article, Johan Billgren, co-founder and chief innovation officer of podcast hosting platform Acast, discussed the advertising side of podcasts, stating that it’s “one of the most environmentally sustainable advertising mediums”. Acast based its findings on a report by Essence Global which ranked various media channels by metric tons of CO2 emitted per £1 of media investment and highlighted their relative environmental impact.

Equally, in 2020, the Advertising Association launched Ad Net Zero, an industry-wide initiative aimed at lowering the UK advertising industry’s carbon footprint. More research needs to be done into the environmental impact of podcasts to get host platforms such as Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Music to commit to a long-term strategy. 

The verdict

The podcast industry plays a varied and growing role in both the business and legal worlds. Businesses must assess various factors to make an informed decision as to whether a podcast has a place in its business model. Podcasts have a huge political and social impact by informing people daily on important issues or simply entertaining them, while also being largely accessible and personal. Of course, the industry is also relatively new and as such faces a range of challenges, especially in the legal, economic and environmental space. So, keep in mind these six external factors next time you tune into your favourite legal podcast.

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Katherine Bryant (she/her) is a content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.