If you were drawing up a person who embodied the new media landscape, it would probably look a lot like Erica Anderson, Executive Producer for Podcasts at Vox. Despite that, however, she got her ‘start’ in traditional journalism – as a reporter for the Northwest Indiana Times and then being chosen by MTV to cover the 2008 US Election.
She worked as a digital strategist for CBS’ Katie Couric and then dove head-first into the tech world; first at Twitter on the organisation’s nascent journalism team, and then in 2015 moved to Google where she led work on news partnerships. In 2019, she moved to Vox Media.
Throughout her career Erica has stayed one step ahead of the media landscape, shifting to new mediums just as they were ready to take off. Podcasts, the world in which she is now a major player, is similar – from what was still seen by many in the mainstream is a kooky offshoot of talk radio in the early 2010s, a third of Americans now listen to podcasts at least once a month according to Edison Research, and more than half have listened to at least one.
Unsurprisingly, that’s big business: in 2018 alone, a figure that has surely now been trumped, almost half a billion dollars was pumped into advertising on podcasts, per the Interactive Advertising Bureau.
But what makes a good podcast? And more importantly perhaps, where does it look like the podcast ecosystem is moving?
The origin story
Anderson points to one show in the late 1980s as the beginning of ‘talk radio’ – the original form, so to speak, of the podcast. For her it’s the Rush Limbaugh Show that changed the game. “You can’t talk about the success of Joe Rogan (podcasting’s biggest star) without talking about the rise of talk radio.
“From what I’ve read he set out to make money not to influence politics, but in doing so he found a disenfranchised audience, which was largely conservative voices in America. He built a show according to his worldview, and was an aggressive analyser and explainer of news,” says Anderson.
Limbaugh, who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor, was syndicated over hundreds of radio stations, but in so doing, for Anderson, he created a new format that really “resonated with people.”
His success spawned a phalanx of new podcasts, predominantly conservative-focused. Many of Fox News’ stars today began life as talk radio hosts. And Anderson quotes Brian Rosenwald, author of the book Talk Radio’s America, describing the genre as “brash, entertaining, controversial and boundary pushing.”
Fast forward to today
For Anderson, that ethos has carried on to today’s most popular talk podcasts. But how does that manifest itself?
Style: These shows, say Anderson, are “driven by the personality of the host.” They tend to be long, and feel unedited and unproduced – even though they often are heavily edited and produced.
Intimacy: “There’s an illusion that it’s just you and me talking,” she says of the best podcasters. “These hosts are amazing at building parasocial relationships,” in a similar way to the work of YouTubers. “People really have a connection to these hosts.”
Story: The story that podcasters turn up to tell every day is, like Limbaugh, “really based as its core on their identity, the host and their worldview.”
And Anderson then explains why they’re doing it – and why media networks are queuing up to get a piece of the podcasting pie. “They make a lot of money. They are not critically acclaimed or winning Pulitzer Prizes but they build very strong relationships with listeners which leads into successful DR advertising.”
As she looks back on the rise of talk radio, Anderson observes that there was a “lot of creative development on those shows to inform and educate”, but an abandonment of objectivity.
Here come the big boys
Podcasting may have begun as a relatively low-production-value affair, with execs looking upon what they imagined to be twenty-somethings broadcasting out of mom’s basement. However that has changed significantly in recent years as some organisations have attempted not just to catch up but to thrive with the shift from talk radio to on-demand podcasts.
Take the New York Times, who bought Serial Productions for a figure believed to be in the region of dozens of millions. It was the New York Times, too, who launched The Daily – a podcast that gives you, unsurprisingly, a daily dose of news.
It has become so popular that Anderson says it is now the show they “use to launch everything off. How do you launch and make successful podcasts at scale? You announce them on the Daily.”
Anderson sees the New York Times as having a strategy that focuses on content and intellectual property – “a real revenue generator but also an access point for listeners.”
Content is king
It’s not just news organisations looking to the podcast market, though. Spotify’s acquisition spree has been the talk of podcasting for more than a year – buying up producers and distributors including Gimlet, Anchor and Parcast, as well as spending a cool $196m on sports and pop culture darling The Ringer.
Spotify boss Daniel Ek said recently that the next decade will be “defined by a more personalised immersive audio experience (and) also be defined by fierce competition” for those ears.
He’s not the only one convinced. Amazon and Google have both gone ‘big’ on podcasting in recent years.
So what’s next?
Talk podcasts, Anderson believes, will become “omnipresent, and a medium of connection and capital.” Their scale means “ideas and voices will spread faster… and their influence over their audiences will continue to deliver profit.”
Successful hosts, too, will become bigger than their podcasts – personal brands creating incalculable value for the networks and distributors they work with.
“They are social commentary weapons,” says Anderson. What the best have in common is that they are “critics of society, critics of culture, provocateurs of new ideas, they’re rabble rousers.”
And they are also recognising that they need to be across platforms. “They tell stories over a campfire on a podcast, and spend the week adding wood to that fire across social media and other mediums.”
And on the business side
Anderson expects consolidation to create new organisations and shape the next generation of podcasts, with the largest players acting as effective gatekeepers to content. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Anderson believes that, in particular, news organisations who do this well can embark on exciting projects that entertain as well as inform, helping to recreate a degree of trust in ‘traditional’ media.
However it does mean, for Anderson, “consumers will be funnelled towards fewer choices.”
Oh – and if you’re thinking of having a go yourself? The most important thing that makes a good podcast host, says Anderson, is their ability to create a mood.
Podcasts, it appears, will be putting media execs in very positive moods for years to come.