In 2007 I subscribed to and became a regular listener of my first podcast, Mitch Joel’s Six Pixels of Separation. Since that time, I have listened to thousands of others, spanning a variety of industries and delivery formats (The Tim Ferris Show being one of my all-time favourites). I have discovered that what I personally love most about this medium is how digestible it is on the go (perfect for running or business travel) and how conducive it is to long-form unscripted interviews/conversations (to the point where I sometimes opt to drive instead of fly to see a client if it’s within a 4-hour drive). It’s the latter that fascinates me the most as it contrasts heavily with today’s quick consumption, heavily visual, transient TikTok/Insta culture.
The pros and cons of niche content
Many people, myself included, long for critical thought, moments of pause, genuine openness and curiosity as well as the lost art of argumentation, especially when the arguing parties demonstrate respect towards each other while holding different opinions and leave at least a small window of room to be persuaded into changing their own thinking (i.e what I call genuine empathetic listening). This is simply not possible in most quick consumption and network news formats due to their firm time constraints (televised political debates being the prime example). I can’t even begin to list the number of new topics, ideas, thought leaders, authors, and industries that these sort of podcasts have introduced me to.
The fragmentation of the internet into millions of niches has opened up room for anyone with a mic, unique content, and a tolerable voice (even ASMR-driven) to become a big fish in their respective small pond (i.e. topic area). Whether that’s a mother/daughter combo talking about knitting, or fighter pilots discussing combat, there is something out there for everyone in the long-tail world of internet podcasts. Further to that, the ubiquity of the internet (nearing 59% global penetration), smartphones (49% global penetration), and platform neutrality (i.e. it no longer matters if you have an iPhone, Android, etc.) has definitely helped this medium grow.
On the flip side, one can argue that when it comes to podcasts involving controversial social/health/environmental topics and politics in general, all of these small ponds only perpetuate group think and increase the polarization of society. They also allow the digital-savvy fringe communities that exist among the extreme periphery of a network to build a powerful footprint, enter the mainstream discourse, and create a sense of false balance for others outside of their community that happen to come across their content (case in point, anti-vaxxers).
This, however, is a much broader issue (with social media in general) and won’t be solved anytime soon. At least not until the level of digital media literacy increases drastically across society.
Back to podcasting and its resurgence.
The initial hype surrounding podcasting actually peaked around 2006 and then began to decline for the majority of the following decade. It’s not until the end of 2014 that it began to climb back up again (refer to the Google Search Trend visualization below). I believe this is partially a result of the rise of smartphones, global 3g/4g infrastructure and subsequent visual/video content possibilities on these devices. Let’s face it, our lizard brains are attracted to dopamine inducing shiny objects and there is more than enough of that to go around these days. The renewed growth also seems largely driven by the popularity of true crime / investigative journalism, specifically, the release of the “Serial” Podcast, which within a few months of launching in 2014 had been downloaded more than 68 million times. By 2018 that number hit 340 million. Now true crime podcasts account for nearly 50% of the top 10 podcasts listed on iTunes (interestingly, numerous sources also point out that the majority of true crime listeners are women).
If you take a look at the most common and fastest rising global search queries containing the word “podcast” (below), you’ll notice that besides true crime and people interested in learning how to start a podcast, another massive contributor to the podcasting comeback has been American comedian, actor, sports commentator, martial artist, and television host, Joe Rogan, with his phenomenally successful Joe Rogan Experience (launched in 2009).
The format is simple, Joe brings in an interesting (albeit at times controversial) guest and has an unstructured conversation with them often lasting 2-3 hours and typically going on wild tangents. Who has time for that these days you ask? Joe Rogan’s daily audience is estimated to be anywhere from 5M-7M. For comparison, the most-watched U.S news anchor, Sean Hannity (Fox News), has an audience of about 3.1M people (using Neilson data).
Fastest Rising Search Queries with the word “podcast’ (2004-2020)
|1.) how to podcast|
|2.) joe rogan podcast|
|3.) joe rogan|
|5.) serial podcast|
|6.) podcast app|
|7.) podcast rmc|
|9.) podcast android|
|10.) what is podcast|
Numbers are one thing, what’s the impact?
Here are some highlights of Joe Rogan’s podcasting impact (both good and bad, pulled from Wikipedia):
- By April 2019 the podcast had 190 million downloads a month.
- An annual Joe Rogan-inspired “Sober October” tradition started in 2017 has influenced some listeners to curb their addictions by partaking in the challenge.
- Elon Musk‘s appearance on episode No. 1,169 on September 6, 2018 saw Musk smoke cannabis, which attracted worldwide press attention and caused a 9% fall in Tesla stock.
- The podcast helped Andrew Yang’s campaign for the 2020 U.S. presidential election gain momentum following his appearance in February 2019.
- On June 20, 2019, Area 51 conspiracy theorist, Bob Lazar, made an appearance on the show where Rogan frequently discusses the possibility of aliens and extraterrestrial life. This episode was cited as the inspiration for the planned Facebook event and Internet meme known as Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us, created one week later.
- A study conducted by Coleman Insights in 2019 with 1,000 monthly podcast listeners aged 18 to 64 revealed that The Joe Rogan Experience ranked the highest in the “unaided awareness” category, double that of any other podcast
- According to The New York Times, Rogan and The Joe Rogan Experience became an “unlikely political influencer” in the 2020 presidential election after presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard both saw measurable surges in popularity and fundraising after making guest appearances on the program in 2019, and in 2020, when presidential candidate Bernie Sanders saw a surge of press coverage in national news and global media outlets as a result of his campaign using a clip from The Joe Rogan Experience showing Rogan speaking favorably about the candidate and saying on air, “I think I’ll probably vote for Bernie.”
I point all of this out because it turns out that there is still an appetite and an audience for long-form audio content, there always has been. The difference is that it’s growing faster than ever thanks in large part to some of these massive podcasts that are introducing people to the medium for the first time and also inspiring new content creators to start their own. Think of the tens of thousands of podcasts out there following the same long-form style but addressing a niche audience of some sort (even if it’s just 100, 1K, or 10K people per podcast). While many organizations looking to engage with their audience on social media are busy chasing the shiny fast-paced platforms of the day, I feel that not enough consideration is being given to this highly immersive, first-generation form of social media that has come back stronger than ever.
Action item: Browse through some podcasting directories or simply do a google search for the following: [your industry/topic area] + “podcasts”. Subscribe to a few. Listen in, and not just to the top ones but the bottom of the list as well. You will likely find a highly engaged and relevant community that you’ve been missing this entire time.