In 2016, Morgan Mandriota and Lester Lee, two freelance writers looking to grow their personal brands, decided to start a podcast. They called it “The Advice Podcast” and put about as much energy into the show’s production as they did the name. (After all, no one was paying them for this. Yet.) Each week, the friends, neither of whom had professional experience dispensing advice, met in a free room at the local library and recorded themselves chatting with an iPhone 5.
“We assumed we’d be huge, have affiliate marketing deals and advertisements,” Ms. Mandriota said.
But six episodes in, when neither Casper mattresses nor MeUndies had come knocking, the friends quit. Today, Ms. Mandriota says the same D.I.Y. spirit that made having a podcast “alluring” is precisely what doomed the project. “You can talk about the trees outside as much as you want, but if you’re not going to serve listeners and do it in a way that’s engaging, your chances of going viral are low,” she said, calling her show “the most makeshift podcast, with mediocre advice.”
It’s no wonder that the phrase “everyone has a podcast” has become a Twitter punch line. Like the blogs of yore, podcasts — with their combination of sleek high tech and cozy, retro low — are today’s de rigueur medium, seemingly adopted by every entrepreneur, freelancer, self-proclaimed marketing guru and even corporation. (Who doesn’t want branded content by Home Depot and Goldman Sachs piped into their ears on the morning commute?) There are now upward of 700,000 podcasts, according to the podcast production and hosting service Blubrry, with between 2,000 and 3,000 new shows launching each month. In August William Morrow will publish a book by Kristen Meinzer, a co-host of the popular “By the Book” podcast. Its title: “So You Want to Start a Podcast.”
There are dozens of books like Ms. Meinzer’s (with names like “Podcasting Hacks” and “Podcasting for Profit”). There is also a compendium, published by Podcast Junkies, titled “The Incredibly Exhaustive List of Podcasts about Podcasting.”
And yet the frequency with which podcasts start (and then end, or “podfade,” as it’s coming to be known in the trade) has produced a degree of cultural exhaustion. We’re not necessarily sick of listening to interesting programs; but we’re definitely tired of hearing from every friend, relative and co-worker who thinks they’re just an iPhone recording away from creating the next “Serial.”
“Anyone can start one and so anyone who thinks they can start one will do it,” said Nicholas Quah, who runs an industry newsletter called Hot Pod. “It’s like the business of me.”
“Being a podcast host plays into people’s self-importance,” said Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. And it projects that importance to others. Public speaking and consulting gigs now often go to “the person who’s the expert and has the podcast,” she said.
“The thing about podcasts,” Dr. North added, “is that it’s very, very hard to determine popularity. It’s easy for the host to appear to be an influencer. And whether anybody finds that podcast or listens to it and the bounce rate — who knows?”
People use all kinds of metrics to tout the popularity of their shows, whether it’s the number of iTunes reviews they get or the total downloads they receive per month. These metrics mean different things and don’t necessarily connote success. And as recent social media scandals have shown, popularity can be purchased.
But Dr. North said that having a big audience doesn’t necessarily matter. “When people interview experts, even if nobody ever listens to the podcast, hosts get the benefit of learning from and networking with the guest,” she said. “It’s a great stunt.”
Call him cynical, but Jordan Harbinger, host of “The Jordan Harbinger Show” podcast, thinks there is a “podcast industrial complex.” Hosts aren’t starting shows “because it’s a fun, niche hobby,” he said. “They do it to make money or because it will make them an influencer.”
Mr. Harbinger understands the irony of his position. His own podcast, in which he interviews business experts (recently Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, and Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Alphabet), and gives advice on how to be successful, gets about 250,000 downloads per episode and brings in multiple seven figures in advertising revenue annually, he said. Having become an aural influencer, he now receives daily requests to appear on other people’s shows. But when he informs these hosts that he won’t publicize the interview on his own show or social feeds, the requests often evaporate. “I’m so out on becoming a part of your marketing plan,” he said.
For the last few years, Mr. Harbinger has given a talk titled “For the Love of God, Please Don’t Start Another Podcast.” “It’s sort of tongue in cheek obviously,” he said. “I love podcasting, and the more shows in the mix the better, as long as they’re done by someone who actually cares and isn’t just trying to get a piece of pie.” What needs to be created, he said, is “a real conversation that will benefit the audience, not the host.”
There’s no available data comparing podcast formats, such as how many interview shows exist and how many are news programs or narrative journalism. But industry analysts and production companies say that so-called “bantercasts,” in which the host and guests chitchat for an hour or more, likely comprise the bulk of new productions.
“So many of these are just painful,” said Tom Webster, the senior vice president of Edison Research, which tracks consumer media behavior. “We revere the great interviewers, but it’s an incredible skill that nobody has. What did Terry Gross do before she had her own show? Well, she was an interviewer, not a marketer for a software company.”
Steve Pratt, a veteran CBC producer who now runs a podcasting company called Pacific Content, actively discourages his clients from starting interview shows. “People assume that’s all a podcast is: two people talking unedited for two hours, three hours,” he said.
But just because Joe Rogan can do it well, Mr. Pratt said, doesn’t mean the average Joe can. He likes to remind clients that the average American commute is under half an hour (about 27 minutes, according to census data) so you’ve got to respect people’s time. “You could be better than 90 percent of interview podcasts by cutting out the boring stuff,” he said. The key is to “put yourself in the listener’s shoes over and over again.”
In 2017, David Burkus, a tech and business writer and former podcaster stopped producing his podcast when it became clear he wasn’t attracting new listeners. “I wouldn’t go back to podcasts in any form — certainly not in interview form,” he said. But then he sort of did. When his last book was published, he went on over 100 podcasts to promote it. Just as he was using these shows to push his book, it’s likely that hosts were using him to build their cred. He estimates that only a small fraction actually read his book in advance. “The others think they can wing it, and it ends up being kind of awkward,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ms. Mandriota is giving podcasting another go. Her new attempt is an interview-style show about sex and relationships called “Hard and Deep,” and she’s committed to a longer run than “The Advice Podcast.” (If she succeeds, she’ll be in the minority; between March and May of this year, only 19.3 percent of existing podcasts introduced a new episode, according to Blubrry.)
“I’m going to have a set strategy, do the research and make sure I know what I’m doing, instead of just seeing what sticks,” Ms. Mandriota said. “It definitely won’t be taped at a library where janitors are walking around, yelling in the background of each episode.”
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