Last week I noticed a press release, sent out via PressGazette (a British media news website). The article announced that Acast, the Scandi podcast hosting and advertising company, would be leading a consortium of “probably the most influential” publishers in podcasting. Those publishers? The Guardian, The Times, The Economist, The FT, and Tortoise.
This immediately struck me as a little bit off, simply because I couldn’t really think of a metric by which these were the most influential publishers in podcasting. And so I tweeted to that extent.
I also noted, somewhat cheekily, each of these publisher’s current best chart placement in the the All Categories section of the Apple podcast charts. They were as follows: The Guardian (№29), The Times (№57), FT (№70), Economist (№130), and Tortoise (№52). And so, by simple popularity, it didn’t strike me that any of them had a particularly good claim to influence.
To get meta for a second, I am by no means an influencer in the podcast space. But my tweet was taken up by a couple of genuine clout-wielders in the sector, who wanted to ask the same question. Firstly, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former comms man and host of The Rest is Politics, and then Gary Lineker, England footballer turned pod-magnate. They were both, rightly, drawing attention to the fact that Goalhanger Podcasts (the company founded by Lineker with some excellent producers ex of the BBC) had three podcasts (The Rest is History, Leading, and The Rest is Politics) in the Top 10 that I posted. Surely that means that they, not Acast’s consortium of legacy publishers, are Britain’s most influential podcast publishing company?
I tweeted this last week, rather glibly, but now I want to address what I think is a very serious, important question in podcasting. What makes a podcast influential?
To try and answer this question, I’m going to primarily draw upon my knowledge of the UK podcast market, particularly news and current affairs, but I believe that the conclusions I come to would, broadly, hold up in the US and other English-language markets (I always add the disclaimer that I understand sufficiently little about Chinese and Arabic podcast markets, particularly, that I wouldn’t want to say the rules host across those).
The first question is one of metrics. What are the tangible measurements of influence? One of the most frequent negative replies to that tweet held the observation that the Apple Podcasts chart is inscrutable — nobody outside the core of the Apple knows the precise formula by which the chart is calculated. Certainly it has an element of raw listening (i.e. if you are achieving 100,000 listeners per episode, you are very likely to chart in the UK Top 100). But it also has a bias towards newness, a bias towards “acceleration” (i.e. if your latest episode has done 3x the traffic of the previous one), a bias towards completion (i.e. how far listeners get in your episodes), and some sort of bias towards engagement (Apple has denied that ratings and reviews makes a difference to chart placement, but I suspect there are adjacent engagement figures that do). And so the Apple Podcasts chart is a crude measurement, and will never precisely align with other podcast charts (like Spotify, Pocket Casts, Deezer etc).
I tend to use the Apple Podcast charts as my default ranking system for one simple reason: still about 50% of my podcasts’ traffic comes via Apple. Spotify accounts for c.30% and a bunch of apps, many of whome use the Apple index, make up the rest. So in a pure majority rule sense, I would be crazy not to lean, primarily, on Apple.
But I’m conscious that influence is not measured in sheer volume of listeners. Here in the UK, far more people watch Antiques Roadshow than Succession, yet every newspaper has been crammed with coverage of the Roy family saga, and few are still reporting on Fiona Bruce’s latest bargains. The journalist Henry Jeffreys, responding to my tweet, summed it up neatly. “All their listeners are highly influential,” he observed. “I’d say one Economist reader is probably worth about 5 BBC listeners, at least in his own head.”
Flippancy aside, the point stands. I remember when I was producing a leading politics podcast for a leading UK political magazine. Very occasionally, when other, better, staff were too busy, I would have to anchor the daily news bulletin. On one occasion, at a drinks party, a politician approached me and addressed me by name. He was an avid listener to the show, and the fact that I occasionally hosted it meant that he knew who I was. That politician would later go on to be Chancellor of the Exchequer (not, it should be said, to enormous success). The point of this self-aggrandising anecdote is to observe that even though I knew exactly how many people listened to that show (which, in its current iteration, is presently only ranked №31 in the News category on Apple) I was also aware that senior politicians were tuning into it, every day. Clearly that is a very precise form of influence.
Political podcasts are still a niche endeavour here in the UK. 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.
The flip-side of this is all the political podcasts that I wouldn’t send my politicians onto, including shows by The Guardian, The Times, The Economist, The FT and Tortoise. But it also includes a lot of shows that I’ve made (or make!). The truth is that these serve a different function. They speak directly to Westminster professionals or those in adjacent industries (the Civil Service, say, or government contractors), social science graduates, media insiders, public affairs bods, think tankers, academics, etc. By the time you’ve exhausted the possible demographics for these audiences, you’ve usually arrived at roughly the average size of these audiences (namely, around 50,000 listeners per episode). There isn’t a lot of room left over for Joe Everyman.
But the absence of a direct line of communications to the average voter doesn’t mean they’re not influential. In point of fact, most people would say that a podcast listened to by, say, the Prime Minister and nobody else, is more influential than a podcast listened to by a thousand Medium bloggers. It’s a difference that podcasting has always struggled to price into its advertising model, where legacy media has done so for years. Another anecdote from the aforementioned magazine I worked at: the best performing advert they had for print subscriptions was a photograph of the Queen with a copy of the magazine next to her in a helicopter. The tagline read something like “When only the best will do”. And think about Succession: a blockbuster TV show about media intrigue has, naturally, excited media watchers. And guess what? Those same people also commission reviews and features and run front-pages lamenting the deaths of fictional characters. The fact that Joe Everyman, his ears plugged into The Rest is Politics, doesn’t have an HBO or Sky subscription and isn’t following the WayStar RoyCo intrigue is secondary.
And then, finally, there’s the argument that legacy publishers bring gravitas to podcasting, simply by participating in it. The Guardian was founded in 1821, The Times in 1785, The FT in 1888, The Economist in 1843: all have existed for well over a hundred years longer than podcasting as a medium. The odd-one-out is Tortoise, which was founded 2019 and later pivoted to an audio-first approach. But their tactic, led by former BBC exec James Harding, has always been to present as a legacy brand. They don’t engage in the production bunfight, they have always been an original news-gathering organisation.
I buy this argument. Legacy media brands have been hugely important to the success of podcasting internationally, even if they haven’t always been at the innovative edge of the medium. When The Guardian started Football Weekly in 2006, it was investing significant resources in an area that was totally untested (at that time, the BBC was starting to put radio shows out as podcasts, but not yet investing in podcast-first content). The fact that, 17 years later, Football Weekly is still the jewel in The Guardian’s audio crown suggests that was a good gamble to make. But it also speaks to the frustrating failure, at times, of legacy media organisations to kick-on. The Guardian had a decade-long head-start on most of its competitors in this space, and yet they have been quietly gazumped by insurgent brands like Goalhanger Podcasts. The Economist and FT, meanwhile, have always been troubled by the necessity of reconciling their print and audio brands. Their shows sound like how the publication reads. This is, however, a hard circle to square, and one that has been foresworn by more successful legacy media brands (like the New York Times) working in this space. But the fact of something being said on an Economist podcast or a Times podcast or an FT podcast will always carry some weight. The brand cross-pollinates, as does the reflection of influence.
The truth is that we don’t have an adequate way of calculating influence. I do not think that the quintet of news publishers who labelled themselves “the most influential voices in podcasting” have out-sized market penetration. I don’t think their audio products are particularly serious parts of their overall editorial plan (with the exception of Tortoise). But I do think they are influential publishers, full stop (or “period” as Americans would say). If an influential publisher publishes a podcast, does that make the podcast influential? It’s hard to answer with any certainty, but, without a doubt, that’s the impression their advertising sales team will want to give off.
The final question then, is how to build influence. Imagine that you are reading this blog and you’re not — shock horror — the heir to a great media fortune. You don’t work in the penthouse office of a giant tower block bearing the name of your news organisation. How, then, do you gain influence?
The truth is that audio-first (or audio-only) brands have long struggled for credibility. Even in the halcyon days of commercial radio, there was a clear line of perception (at least within the chattering classes) drawn between public radio and privately-owned, and operated, broadcasters. (And, for the record, I would always argue that the BBC is, without close competition, the most influential podcast publisher in the UK). TV is perhaps the only place where, in modern times, new prestige brands, like Fox News, have emerged. But the attempt to recreate that, in modern conditions, with channels like GB News and Talk TV, has failed. It may no longer be possible to create new legacy media brands; we may just have to beg existing brands to bet more heavily on audio as an outlet.
But I think that audio-first publishers must champion themselves, and fly their own flag. We are beginning to see aligned verticals emerging in audio — like The Rest is History and The Rest is Politics — that resemble the way that verticals work across the rest of the media. I suspect that audio start-ups looking to garner influence would be better served by creating and constantly reinforcing an umbrella brand (like The Rest is…) than taking the approach of Gimlet Media, and creating several semi-autonomous outlets, farmed predominantly as IP. It is no surprise, to me, that a company like Gimlet saw its ultimate destiny in an exit — again, being able to be sold for $230m is a form of influence, but few would argue that Gimlet Media, in itself, is, or was, an influential media player. Building IP in order to exit to legacy brands (as has been done by, say, Serial Productions or The Athletic) or to Big Tech (like Gimlet, Parcast, or Wondery) is a good way to make money, but not to gain influence.
The question now is whether these incipient media brands, which are populating the charts with new names and fresh faces, are in it for the long haul. Do they want to become legacy broadcasters? Or is the simpler path to merge or sell to someone with a shortcut to credibility? And when will we see podcasts starting to push outwards into other media, as print has consistently done over the past few decades? Because if the measure of influence is in the extent to which a brand colonises spaces outside its original purview, then no podcast-first format can claim any particular influence. The danger of parochialism is that it allows voices that have been heard since the 19th century to roll in and claim the crown.
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