Introducing The Ambies: The Podcast Industry’s Shiny New Awards Show
Podcasting is ready for its closeup.
The media landscape has changed dramatically over the past few years. The gaming industry’s annual revenue surpassed earnings from live sports and moviegoing combined, and Hollywood studios and distributors shrunk the theatrical window in favor of sending new blockbuster releases directly to streaming platforms. When it comes to audio entertainment, however, the most seismic shift in the way we consume media has to do with the explosion of podcasting.
It’s been a while since podcasting was a fringe medium that sounded like downloadable, DIY episodes of talk radio. According to a 2021 study by Edison Research, about 41% of U.S. adults are now monthly podcast listeners—a figure that’s practically doubled in the last five years.
Sure, some of the podcasts you hear today have held fast to the homespun energy that characterized the dawn of the medium, back when the term ‘podcast’ was first coined in 2004. But others couldn’t sound more different.
Many of today’s biggest podcasts are polished productions birthed from multi-million-dollar acquisitions and feature A-list celebrities. They’re boundary-pushing immersive experiences that propel the medium forward. There’s no limit to the number of podcasts listeners have to choose from, but apart from sourcing friends’ recommendations, there hasn’t been an easy way to distinguish between what’s worthwhile or worth skipping. That is, perhaps, until now.
The Ambies—a new awards ceremony founded with the mission to “celebrate excellence in podcasting and elevate awareness and status of podcasts as a unique and personal medium for entertainment, information, storytelling and expression”—are here to change that.
A Brief History of Podcast Awards
In 2006, two years after podcasts first came into being, the first People’s Choice Podcast Awards (or just Podcast Awards, for short) were held. This Week in Tech, a weekly show featuring round-table discussions about technology news, was the inaugural recipient of the ceremony’s People’s Choice Award.
While the Podcast Awards have continued to bestow laurels on a variety of shows on an annual basis, their eclectic roster of winners have often reflected a podcast’s ability to resonate with niche audiences. For instance, shows about fantasy football have been crowned the People’s Choice on six separate occasions.
In contrast, most of the shows vying for (virtual) trophies at the Ambies reveal a medium that has grown into a form of mainstream entertainment. If the People’s Choice Podcast Awards were a response to an emerging medium still gradually finding its voice, the Ambies are a loud and clear indication that podcasts are now a vital piece of the showbiz puzzle—and they ought to be recognized as such.
The Ambies, which were founded by the Podcast Academy and initially called the ‘Golden Mics,’ changed their name to phonetically resemble the Oscars and the Emmys. If the Ambies are positioning themselves as the Oscars of podcasting, then they have the unique opportunity to influence the direction in which the form is heading.
Are the podcasts most worthy of recognition the ones that resemble TV and movies—that is, narrative-driven stories produced by a handful of the same major studios? Or will the Ambies choose to embrace podcasting’s singular origins and assert that podcasts are a novel medium that needn’t follow in the footsteps of any of its media forebears? A bit of both?
Let’s take a look.
The Ambies: By the Numbers
The inaugural Ambies will be streamed live on May 16th via YouTube and Twitch. All in all, there are 164 nominations across 23 categories. In addition to the nominees, the Podcast Academy is honoring Marc Maron, host of WTF with Marc Maron, with its first Governors Award.
Unlike the lineup of nominees you’ll see at awards shows like the Oscars or Emmy Awards, the Ambies have really spread the wealth. Among the 23 categories, you’ll notice that there isn’t a single show that dominates across the board.
In fact, most of the nominated podcasts just appear in a single category, with only a handful of shows receiving more than one nomination. Twenty shows in total received multiple nominations, with three shows tied for first place with four nominations each: Dirty Diana and The Left Right Game, both of which were produced by QCODE, and Crooked Media’s Wind of Change.
While the pool of 2020 nominees have all gotten an equal opportunity to shine, it’s worth noting that the bulk of the shows being recognized are affiliated with major podcasting networks. The companies that received multiple Ambies nominations provide a fascinating snapshot into a landscape where traditional media organizations are coming head-to-head with the new players on the scene.
The company with the most Ambies nominations is the audio behemoth that is Spotify. Spotify leads the pack with 18 nominations, in large part due to the big bet the company has made on podcasting, which included acquisitions of Gimlet Media and The Ringer.
Hot on Spotify’s trail are Wondery and QCODE, with 13 and nine nominations, respectively. Wondery was founded in 2016 and was sold to Amazon Music late last year, while QCODE is known for producing a slate of fiction podcasts starring the likes of Rami Malek, Tessa Thompson, Matthew McConaughey, Cynthia Erivo, and Demi Moore.
Other podcasting companies that garnered multiple nominations include Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast and audiobook company Pushkin Industries and political news and commentary network Crooked Media.
These relative newcomers are joined by podcasting pioneers Stitcher and iHeartRadio, as well legacy media outlets NPR and CBC, all of which received numerous nominations. There are some independent companies recognized, such as Mermaid Palace or Our Day, but when it comes to the biggest category of the night, Podcast of the Year is largely inhabited by the more established companies.
Notably, two of the three most-nominated podcasts are fiction podcasts. Fiction podcasts seem to have a better chance at vying for more Ambies than, say, a sports or business-themed podcast, because they naturally have the opportunity to compete in multiple categories: the Best Fiction Podcast, Best Scriptwriting (Fiction), and Best Performer in Audio Fiction categories, for example.
The Best Performer in Audio Fiction award also represents an exciting opportunity for powerful voice over performances to receive more recognition. Fiction podcasts are a burgeoning category of voice over work, and they’re increasingly attracting actors from a variety of other fields such as film and TV acting, animation, and audiobooks.
In fact, narrative podcasts—including audio drama and true crime stories—are well-represented in the Podcast of the Year category. In a way, this resembles the Oscars’ Best Picture category, where dramatic narratives are recognized, while documentaries, comedies, animation, and films made outside of the United States are often relegated to their own categories and rarely competing for the top prize.
How Will the Ambies Shake Out?
We’ll have to wait until May 16th to witness how the first-ever Ambies shake out. No matter the outcome, the existence of the Ambies are certainly an indication that podcasts have graduated to the big leagues and are now being acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with in the greater entertainment industry.
Are you rooting for a certain show to take home a trophy? What do you think of this year’s nominees? Did the Ambies completely miss something?
Tune in on May 16th to follow along as the winners of the inaugural Ambies are unveiled.