Your Top 10 Lists are Harming the Podcasting Industry

I’d like to thank Juleyka Lantigua-Williams for her piece on, who said what I’ve been thinking for the longest time, just in a nicer way. This article is an extension of that sentiment.

I’ve felt the split between podcasters and what they call “procasters” for a long time now. As a person who deeply understands marketing and advertising, I’ve found my position in explaining the industry behavior to my co-host(s) more than once on She Podcasts. As the industry has grown, my stance has gone from “here’s why this is great for the whole industry!” to “just ignore them and do what you do best, sell your assets as they are, we aren’t creating the same product.”

This isn’t the way an industry grows. It’s the way an industry divides and then falls apart.

I want to illustrate a problem that seems to be perpetuating itself – media congratulating the companies, networks and podcasts over and over, and how that is limiting not only those players, but the listener’s opportunities as well.

To start, a story.

I attended the Werk It Conference in 2016, even though I wasn’t invited. My co-host, Elsie Escobar was invited, and I stole her seat.

After the first networking activity, I clearly saw this was not the place for me. While I co-founded the largest women’s podcasting community in the world, no one in that room was talking to me.

I watched as the women at NPR and WNYC greeted the attendees in the room as long lost friends and in the seats, women reaching across aisles that used to go to NYU or Columbia University together, or used to work at the New Yorker together, or used to run this department or that department together. Almost all were journalists at some point.

That’s when it hit me.

The reason those shows got all the articles and made all the lists was that the writers and bloggers have pre-existing personal relationships, of varying levels, with the hosts and producers.

Naturally, they are kind enough to highlight their friends in their columns and publications.

I left at lunchtime and I didn’t go back the next day.

The truth is that 90% of podcasters are doing it all themselves, and their workplace is anywhere from a closed bedroom to a carefully placed comforter in a walk-in closet – they don’t have the luxury or focus to spend time building relationships with people who can throw them a bone by including their show in their brand new “top 10 must listen to” listicles.

The  “bubble thinking” employed by creators of many of these seemingly innocuous lists has real potential to damage the podcast industry right as it’s hitting a major stride.

We hear more and more that for podcasting to tip over into being a true mainstream media, we have to overcome the discoverability issue that plagues the industry, something that we’re writing a little more about in a separate article here at Rebel Base Media. So why are the same shows covered in big media over and over?

Because it’s easy. And it’s lazy. And it feels like it’s intended to get more eyes on that particular listicle based on those networks included sharing the piece, as opposed to helping the industry.

And I understand that: traffic = dollars, theoretically for these websites – but doesn’t our industry deserve better?

Easy won’t work, we can’t let it win.

Case in point: host-read ads are the ones that have the best ROI, but this part of the industry pushes for dynamic ad insertion because it’s the most like radio and the most measurable.

Again, I understand that – but what worked for the industry’s predecessor doesn’t automatically work in this brave, bold new frontier.

More so, it won’t allow the industry to grow at the pace it needs to, to become a real media contender.

My final bone of contention is this: are we truly cultivating voices of diversity? Or topics of diversity?

I think you know the answer.

I’d like to draw these and more points of note to your attention (in top 10 form, of course) because we skirt around them way too much:

The network shows, while popular, aren’t the only shows with over 50,000 an episode. When I ran the podcast ad agency j/k media agency, I represented shows that were WAY more popular than shows on those networks. However, with no effort to find out what those shows are, the media list the same ones all the time. So, are these lists showcasing the most popular podcasts? Don’t ask Podtrac. They only measure shows one their own measurement tool, which, guess what, is most of the network shows.

Did you know that the percentage of shows that even GET over 5,000 downloads an episode is 5–8%? The shows that get over 20,000 downloads? 1%. That means that whatever list you’re seeing is probably excluding 99% of podcasts.

Advertisers, pay attention: most of those larger shows are guiding you to dynamic ad insertion because it’s “easier to measure”- but it’s also the type of ad that listeners really do not like at all. So while you’re critiquing the ROI of podcast advertising, remember that someone from traditional media and radio most likely sold it to you. Host-reads are the most effective type of ad BY FAR and yet, most of those hosts don’t do reads. Their producers do. So are these lists the lists of shows that have the most effective ad reads? Nope, probably not.

(Want to hear amazing ad reads? My friend Mark Asquith does a read for AWeber before every one of his episodes and finds a different way to compliment them and sell me on why I need them. You’ll never hear Katie Couric do THAT!)

The shows featured in these lists are highly produced, with many having a staff of 5 or more per show. They have guest bookers, producers, directors, engineers, marketing team, and giant NYC studio. Perhaps these Top 10 lists are the lists of the people who are doing the best quality show. But let me present this. Many professional-sounding, studio-quality podcasts are done by one person, including content, editing, social media, guest booking. So, which is more impressive? The show with 20 people on staff, or the one that sounds just as good with just the one host?

(See Native Opinion or The Outlander Pod for professional quality content done by ONE person.)

Not one of these shows has been around 5 years or over. Many of these shows are doing an amazing job, but there are so many shows that have been at the top of their game since podcasting first began 13 years ago. Why not highlight shows that aren’t just killing it, but have killed it consistently?

(Keith and the Girl have been doing so many shows they have episode numbers in the high thousands. Plus, some of their fans have Keith and the Girl TATTOOS.)

The more famous the podcaster, the less audience engagement. Joe Rogan is an amazing interviewer and has one of the best podcasts I’ve ever heard. However, look at his engagement with his audience, not followers, but engagement. You’ll see that the majority of his Twitter feed is retweets and Digg articles, not engagement with the audience. But many, many podcasters have active, intimate relationships with their audience, and THAT is what advertisers need. Engagement. Being famous or well known doesn’t mean you have any kind of relationship or pull with your audience.

(Wanna see engagement? John Lee Dumas only has to suggest he tried a product before thousands of people are ordering it on Amazon. Does Shaquille O’Neal have the same kind of connection to real human beings?)

The shows on these Top 10 lists are smart, interesting, and appeal to a wide variety of people. But, isn’t that what people in radio are best at? The best part of podcasting is to find the things that is so peculiarly niche or entertaining and that specifically talks to you. So, are these shows the shows with the most creative content? Hmm.

(Consider Fish Nerds, a show all about fishing and his loyal fan following as a prime example of these shows missing the boat. Or Stacey Simms’ Diabetes Connections, which focuses on interviews and information about ALL KINDS of diabetes.)

Many of the shows on the Top 10 lists are politically focused. Making Obama, Slow Burn and Trump Inc. are often listed as the best of 2018.

But, to be fair, journalists often cover news and politics, so naturally, there would be a lot of that genre.

True Crime is another popular genre.

But there are at least 12 different Apple Podcasts categories that never get recognition or a mention. Why is that? No parenting podcasts, no games, no sports, no music, no religion. To me, this further proves that these lists are only talking to themselves, about themselves, to congratulate themselves.

New shows are popping up every day, by the thousands. 200,000 new podcasts were submitted to Apple Podcasts in 2018. So, why are we still talking about 2 Dope Queens and Serial and Joe Rogan?PodSave America? My Favorite Murder? Invisibilia? They’re all great shows but if we can get a new color from Pantone every year, we can find some new shows to recommend.

How can they be the “top 10 of 2018” when they were also the top of 2014? and 2015? You mean there is no other show that has reached ‘top’ status? What exactly is the measurement here? Because “new for the year” clearly isn’t part of the criteria.

And lastly, number 1.
The folks writing these “top 10” articles aren’t even looking that HARD for shows to write about. If you ask ONE podcast listener what they like the best, yes, many of them will tell you a network show or two at the top of the list. But the ones they list at the end are the ones that they seem to find the most interesting. “Then, I found this show about this thing and IT’S FASCINATING.” So, I implore you, list-makers. Ask. One. Podcast listener.

And speaking of listeners, these writers must know that readers of these columns are counting on these lists to discover NEW shows to listen to. If we all keep recommending the same ones every year, then we can’t complain about discoverability being an issue in podcasting. Because, really, that makes no sense.

In closing, I feel that our industry deserves better — creators and listeners who are utilizing these lists to discover new podcasts serve more than the same regurgitated nonsense quickly pulled together to hit a quota or a deadline.

To paraphrase (loosely) Lantiqua-Williams, those who cover our industry need to be much more intentional about covering the actual industry everywhere that it’s happening.

My suggestion is that journalists work a little harder to dive into the podcasting space if they want something to write about that’s more interesting than patting their college friends and ex-colleagues on the back.

Those of us who work in the independent podcasting space are constantly being amazed at what we’re helping create.

Podcast producers, and hosts of shows large and small: if you have one of the shows on those Top 10 lists and you’re feeling a little salty at the implication that your well-earned accolades have been boiled down to a virtual praise-party, I’d like to present you with a challenge:

The next time you find out you’re being featured in a national publication, reach out and recommend one show that’s similar to yours that isn’t on a network and see if they’ll also highlight what that person is doing, or; perhaps become a listener of 2-3 shows that aren’t being produced in a NY studio, and get a feel for what it is the non-employed podcaster is working on. Anything you think might be interesting. Any subject.

Come to podcasting events and conferences and don’t show up right before your panel and don’t leave directly following. Mingle with podcasters who have made this their life’s work. They don’t have to be brand-new to the industry. Seek out a veteran or go to a session of someone non-NYC and mix in with your podcasting colleagues.

Perhaps those requests seem ambitious, or a lot of work and effort on the parts of those who have entered the space recently and got right to work learning sound design and celebrity guest booking.

And that’s ok.

Podcasting has been around for 15 years. It will continue to thrive with or without big brands as advertisers, and the people making podcasts will continue to change lives, as they always have, one captivated listener at a time.


Jessica Kupferman

Head of Marketing at Rebel Base Media and the co-founder of She Podcasts. Podcaster since 2013, obsessed with marketing and advertising since about 1986. Twitter: @jesskupferman Instagram: @jesskupferman