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The future of podcasts is a high-stakes fight, with millions on the line.

What does Andy Bowers, Panoply Media’s chief content officer, do when someone asks him where to find good, new podcasts?

“I start with categories, which is what a lot of the apps are trying to do as well, and I’ll say, ‘Well what are you interested in?’” he tells the Daily Dot.

He adds that he’ll search the iOS podcast app, and subscribe friends and family to shows that match their interests, explaining that this isn’t just radio on their phone. It’s a pretty bare-bones method toward recommending podcasts, but it’s a key first step.

In March, many leading podcast publishers joined forces to attempt an expansion of the overall podcast audience pie. They did this in part by using a hashtag pun, #trypod, which by a sheer numbers game was a massive success.

Between March 1 and March 31, NPR told the Daily Dot, the hashtag was mentioned 37,900 times, was engaged with 92,500 times, and had an average daily reach of 12,800,000 eyeballs. These numbers don’t reflect the many people who heard #trypod mentioned on a podcast, which accounted for tens of millions more impressions.

Though we don’t yet have numbers for how effective this was in terms of listenership, in February 67 million Americans listened to a podcast. That’s up 17 percent from 2015. Over the last two years, monthly podcast listening has grown by 40 percent.

This experiment was developed in part because there are many who think more podcast listeners would exist if people simply knew how to find podcasts on their phones, or what to listen to. It’s a gold rush for a surging profession—just don’t expect all these apps to stick around.

The podcast startup bubble

If you’re already a podcast fan, just like TV, your chief concern is discovering new shows. There’s such a vast selection of audio out there that exploring is a paralyzing notion. This process of discovery is what huddles of startup techies are betting on.

There are curation platforms like Radiopublic that let you listen to podcasts on a platform that doesn’t care about the device you’re listening on, and you can curate playlists to become a radio DJ-style tastemaker. It’s raised $1.5 million to date. Clammr is a social audio discovery platform where you can take individual clips from podcast episodes and share on social media. It’s worth $1 million.

Anchor is an app that allows you to record and share soundbites of yourself talking, and the team behind the app has already raised $1.6 million. Bumpers is an app that does basically the same thing, with more editing capacity, and has just raised $1 million. Breaker is a brand new app from startup investor Y Combinator that adds a social layer onto the podcast listening experience. Y Combinator typically provides $120,000 in capital in exchange for a 7 percent share of the company.

The fun doesn’t stop there: 60dB is a new app from a few early Netflix employees that pushes short-form audio with a data-driven curation approach. Its fundraising efforts have not been made public.

Larger companies are entering the discovery game as well. This American Life recently released Shortcut, an app that lets you turn your favorite podcast clips into videos to share on social media (kind of like Clammr). NPR One is a standalone app, like a Pandora of news and storytelling where you can get news and culture from a local and national standpoint, both from NPR and non-NPR content. Sirius XM is working on a new app, Spoke, that uses a team of real people pulling their favorite clips from noteworthy podcasts, contextualizing them, and curating the clips into what’s called a path. (I’ve been a beta user here and am excited for what’s to come.)

Let’s keep throwing podcast companies of all functions and pedigrees at the wall here. There’s also Castro, Overcast, Pocket Casts, Spreaker, Blubrry, Audioboom, Radiotopia, PodcastOne, and a dozen other podcast platforms that have different discovery mechanisms.

I use most of these platforms for my own show, and all have been successful at driving traffic and listeners, though at varying degrees. As all profit-driven entities are somewhat opaque when it comes to user numbers, they gave me several non-answers. But the answers I did receive were promising. NPR One, for example, has seen a 90 percent increase year-over-year in 30-day unique active listeners.

Each of these platforms, however, are only a small piece of what’s typically needed to garner success at scale. This makes the future of podcast manufacturing an uncertain one that we’ll arrive at after these startups inevitably compete.

Discovery tactics

With the explosion of listeners in the podcast space, it’s become more crowded for producers and publishers. Today a robust podcast plan includes some combination of cross promotion, social media, advertising, press, leveraging the talent on the show, and the network behind it.

When this plan works out, you’ll see a podcast release like a slingshot, with a growing audience chomping at the bit for more episodes. Since most of these elements aren’t possible for the average podcast producer, another strong driver of audience comes from the distribution platforms and podcast publishers themselves.

Networks and publishers are often similar in promotional scope, and one of their primary tools is cross-promotion. Gimlet, NPR, and Panoply, among many others, regularly use one podcast to promote another, and we’re now seeing these kinds of promotions riding the coattails of advertising. Many ad platforms in the podcast world allow you to swap pieces of audio in and out of episodes in promotional slots. This was intended to allow for ad replacements when you’ve hit the number of sold impressions, but is now also being used to slot in promos for new shows, and can target people the same way (demographically) some ads do.

Every time you hear a push for someone’s new podcast, you’re typically not hearing about Blue Apron’s new saffron-dusted chicken. This drives loads of traffic between shows if the targeting is done right, and I’ve personally discovered multiple shows this way. If you trust and love Bill Simmons, you’re not going to mind when he tells you about a new podcast on his Ringer network.

Each podcast distributor has its own form of internal promotion as well, in addition to cross-promotion, and will get behind popular shows or exclusive content offered by the publisher. Stitcher Premium, Spotify, TuneIn, and Google Play are all offering exclusive podcasts to their users before offering those same podcasts elsewhere.

iTunes, which still accounts for more than 50 percent of all podcast listens, will highlight podcasts by their noteworthiness, ranking, and category. Any prime placement on its podcast player typically means hundreds or thousands of new listeners per day. Each podcast distributor has its own form of premium placement. Any one of these outlets can help make or break a new show if they see fit, and in this sense podcasting is beginning to look a bit more like other media landscapes.

When a portfolio of podcasts is associated with a media institution like the New York Times you also have a powerful web presence to promote new episodes.

Additionally, podcast distributors are relying more on data in order to serve relevant audio to their listeners. Acast is now using a machine-learning algorithm to figure out what you’d enjoy listening to.

“Fifty-two percent of users are more likely to follow a show if it’s recommended to them by the algorithm,” says Caitlin Thompson, director of content for Acast. “Forty-nine percent are more likely to listen to multiple episodes of the show.”

NPR One is able to look at your past behavior on the app and suggest shows you’ll actually listen to, as opposed to the ones you subscribe to and never play. 60dB likewise relies heavily on listening data in order to determine what it will suggest next.

All of these platforms, however, still rely to varying degrees on high touch, highly personal human curation. The extreme opposite example of this is probably a platform like Radiopublic, that relies on the power of online curators to suggest what people should listen to next.

Some folks are also experimenting with the idea that your show is only as popular as the amount of places a listener can find it. Rob Walch is the vice president of podcaster relations at Libsyn, which is the largest podcast-hosting platform in the game with more than 35,000 shows. Libsyn delivered 4.59 billion podcast requests to audiences worldwide in 2016, and reaches 62 million listeners across the whole network monthly. Walch thinks you should invest in a custom app for your podcast, if you really want to build a loyal audience.

According to Walch, a phone app for a podcast will help with branding and listener recognition. The App Store has billions more users than the normal podcast app, and makes it possible to send your audience direct messages through push notifications. Marc Maron, for example, has an iPhone app with over 250,000 downloads. His platform can build native apps for less than $100.

But after spending weeks with all of these tools and studying the tactics being used by independent producers and networks alike, it shocks me that the No. 1 driver of podcast listening is still word of mouth. After all, it’s how Bowers would recommend shows to his third cousin.

“People find quality. Everyone found Serial, it took on a critical mass of its own,” he says.

Tweets, press, and curated pushes are always going to be the result of people talking about an impeccably made product. Podcasting is still a meritocracy, and that’s good news if your garage-based podcast about classic movies is actually funny.

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