Podcasting at 20: how politically powerful is the medium?

Nick Hilton
9 min readJul 20, 2023
A very old podcasting set-up

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Podcasting is twenty years old, apparently. The same age as Real Madrid superstar Jude Bellingham or pop singer Olivia Rodrigo. But does it trump them for achievements at that tender age?

I’ve written enough about where I feel podcasting is at the moment — aka a difficult place — so I won’t cover that ground again. But I want to talk a little today about podcasting’s maturity, its impact and its cultural footprint. Because twenty years is enough time for a product to be around to accumulate sufficient data, both anecdotal and empirical, about its penetration.

A week or two ago, I was listening to Pivot, the podcast hosted by Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway that looks at tech, power and the intersection thereof. They were discussing whether President Trump might return to Twitter ahead of next year’s election in the states, and referring back to 2016 as “the Twitter election”. When pressed on which technology or media distribution mechanism would define the 2024 election, Galloway said TikTok, probably, and podcasts.

Galloway is an extremely successful entrepreneur and a superb pundit, mixing a good level of boots-on-the-ground analysis with contrarian honesty and pithy turn of phrase. In short, he’s a great podcaster. But this comment took me aback: Galloway, who hosts the successful Prof G Show as well as Pivot, must have access to granular information about podcasting’s market reach. Did he really think that the medium has the — that word again — penetration to prove materially impactful on a Presidential or general election?

Immediately my thoughts turned to the idea that he was being sarcastic, but even though he’s half-English, he’s basically American. Unless the irony is really obvious, I guess it has to be presumed as sincerity. So I was left with the impression that someone whose opinions I generally respect (and whose honesty I definitely respect) had a completely converse view to my own. Because only a few weeks earlier, I wrote a blog called “What makes a podcast influential?” in which I wrote the following:

“If I was running media for a British general election campaign, I would forbid politicians from doing interviews for any podcasts other that The Rest is Politics and The News Agents. For all others, the audiences are too small to have any material cut-through, but the risks too high (podcasts are, after all, a very intimate medium for longer form interviews than would be allowed on TV or radio; in other words, a great opportunity to f*** up). Why do I rope those two shows off? Partly it’s to do with listener figures (they have been consistently the top two News podcasts for the past six months) and partly it’s to do with accessing a “normie” audience. This is a very disparaging way of me saying that I think both shows have a significant percentage of listeners who aren’t total nerds buried in political arcana. They have people whose opinions might be changed, who might go out and vote differently or campaign differently or argue differently at dinner parties with other floating voters.”

If podcasts have the ability to sway elections then they have a lot of other things. They have the ability to be a perpetual motion machine for revenue generation, because if the rise and rise (and then partial fall) of cable news showed one thing, it’s that any opinion swaying product has endless advertiser potential. They also have non-commercial power, that direct power that Galloway is speaking of. Whether it’s doing the rounds on the political podcasts of the circuit, or self-publishing a vehicle that allows them to go directly to consumers, Galloway is suggesting huge potential influence innate in the medium. The ability to reach voters on the street.

I’ve never seen any data that corroborates this opinion. In raw listener terms, podcasts still reach far few people than TV, radio or even the written word. Galloway and Swisher’s assertion, on the podcast, was that a podcast listener is more likely than average to be an active voter, a participant in democracy. This is undoubtedly true: podcast listeners score very highly, compared to other media, for things like college education. They are likely to be educated, engaged and, crucially in the US, registered to vote.

All of these are points for podcasting’s salience… but also points against it. In political campaigns there are two stages: data acquisition and “get out the vote”. In the first stage, which usually lasts until the start of the so-called “long campaign” (about 5 months before the vote, when election expenses start being regulated), the point is to ascertain as much data about potential voters as possible. There are three big questions: are you registered to vote? Are you intending to vote? And do you know who you’re planning to vote for?

This is a helpful filtration system because it allows you to identify two caucuses of voters who you needn’t bother targeting in the future: those who are definitely going to vote and those who are definitely not going to vote. The definitely camp will be split into two: those who are definitely going to vote for the opposition party and therefore cannot be persuaded to change their vote (and, indeed, targeting them will only remind them of the election, and inertia is your greatest weapon here), and those who are definitely going to vote for your party. Excepting those who plan to vote remotely (via postal or whatever the non-UK equivalent is) you want to focus your efforts away from this group — until polling day.

And so the mights and maybes and the most influential group. “Yeah, I might vote,” or “Hmm, maybe I’m registered to vote”. People who need help — whether that’s getting them into the system, or helping them choose a candidate. This group is often called “swing voters” or “floating voters” but I think a better description would be “potential voters”. People who are not necessarily going to get into the system, people who are not necessarily going to turn out at the ballot box, and people who are not necessarily going to vote for your party. And with potential voters comes potential: potential to access a group of undecided, uncommitted but potentially game-changing voters.

And this is why I’m ambivalent about the ability of podcasts to move the dial politically. Podcast listeners, especially to the sort of show that are likely to feature election campaign materials, are likely to be i) intending to vote, and ii) intending to vote for someone specific. These are the people you don’t need to access and therefore don’t want to access. It’s a waste of energy. That is, until polling day, when the operation shifts into “get out the vote” mode and targets people who have said they’re going to vote for your candidate/party. Then you want to get them out of bed, into their long johns and down to the village hall.

For “get out the vote” there is basically no medium as bad as podcasting, simply because it’s about as non-instantaneous as possible. Podcasts are routinely consumed not on the day of their release, and have a very limited shelf-life. The mechanics involved with distribution — the requirement, for example, to have your podcast app set to auto-download — are also against its application as a GOTV tool. And so there, in the moment where it might wield some power, its technology lets it down.

This is not to say there’s no political value to using podcasts. There is: and please do email me if you’re considering integrating them into your campaign. But will the 2024 US Presidential election (or 2024 UK General Election) be defined by podcasts? Don’t bet on it.

On a related point, the Financial Times published a profile this week of the UK company, Goalhanger Podcasts. For readers based in the US who are basically unfamiliar with Goalhanger and its hit podcasts The Rest is History and The Rest is Politics, it’s the UK podcasting unicorn. Entirely independent, at time of writing, from the major platforms, it runs predominantly on its advertising revenue (though it continues to integrate more subscriber perks). Founded by Gary Lineker, a former England footballer and anchor of Match of the Day, the nation’s flagship Premier League highlights show, it always had a leg up in life. But its publishing has been canny: the keystone to their slate is The Rest is History, a punk history programme hosted by two middle-aged historians, Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook.

That show does 6,000,000+ listens a month, half of which, crucially, are outside the UK. British podcasting has long been perceived as parochial, travelling, trans-Atlantically, about as well as a rabid dog. They added a second Rest is… show last year, with The Rest is Politics (hosted by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell: if you’re not British, you can Google them) and will add The Rest is Football in September, hosted by Lineker, along with The Rest is Money, led by Robert Peston and Steph McGovern.

What Goalhanger has long understood, and which differentiates it from many of its competitors, is the value of having talent invested in the project, long-term. The rewards for hosting a Goalhanger show can be — according to figures I’ve heard, off the record — eye watering. Or maybe that’s mouth-watering…

In an industry where celebrity podcasts have tended to hire, at significant cost, and rope celebrity presenters into a single series, betting the future success of the product on that run, the model employed by Goalhanger is more long-termist. And because the company was founded by Lineker, they know, instinctively, the value of celebrity. The revenue and rights sharing model has stood them in good stead — the two new products being added to the slate shortly will likely be hits (The Rest is Football, definitely; The Rest is Money, possibly).

But the issue with all this, and the reason I bring it into this piece, is the following paragraph:

“Most podcasts are free and rely financially on advertising. PwC estimates that advertisers will spend £58mn on UK podcasts this year. It is a tiny sum compared with television or radio, and some podcasters experienced a dip in revenues last year, but analysts expect growth to resume. US podcast advertising is expected to hit $1.4bn this year.”

£58mn of advertising across UK podcasting is a terrifyingly small figure. It is, also, completely out of whack with the cultural influence that podcasting wields in this country. This is an observation I’ve made before about Twitter and the TV show Succession: the penetration of these brands at the elite level — policy makers, media figures etc — gives them an out-sized influence. That’s why Elon Musk paid $44bn for a social media platform that’s scarcely bigger than Pinterest. If you speak on Twitter, the world’s media and politicians listen.

Podcasting is popular with professionals and those educated to, at least, degree level. We know that from research provided by companies like Edison. And it also makes sense: it’s an on-the-go medium, highly compatible with commuters and those who can’t afford to sit in front of the TV for an hour. I know, from speaking to them, that politicians in Westminster *love* podcasts (and I’m sure the same is true in Washington DC). They are easy to consume, well-briefed and, increasingly, produced to a professional standard. They can, therefore, set a serious policy agenda. (A show that I make, for example, has been advocating a policy about listing water companies on the London stock exchange, an idea which has subsequently been picked up by the Financial Times and is now a serious policy possibility).

And yet £58mn in annual advertising revenue? With 19m listeners, in 2022, in the UK (a figure that is probably too high) that’s equivalent to £3 of advertising spent, per listener, per year.

Even if I don’t agree with Scott Galloway that podcasts (defined here as downloadable audio) will have any material impact on next year’s suite of election, it’s clear that, 20 years into their existence, they have achieved cut-through in serious and valuable markets. Maybe that’s why the industry is underwritten by what we might called the “thought leadership write-off”, where the costs of production and distribution are weighed against the nebulous, and largely unquantifiable, position of “thought leadership”. All the same, with advertising revenue equating to about three quid per listener per year, it’s hard to argue that podcasting has grown into its value.

At 20, podcasting is, in its own way, a powerful industry. But it’s also one without much capital, without much discretionary income to spend on its own promotion. Without a radical reshaping of how income is generated — a project that has been undertaken again and again during the two decades of the medium’s existence — it’s hard to see how it can do more than tread water.

How to Tread Water and Influence People, then, might be the title when the book on three decades of podcasting is written in 2033.

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Nick Hilton

Writer. Media entrepreneur. London. Interested in technology and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.