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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Your Favorite Podcast Is Probably an ‘Experience’ Now

A few weeks ago, during an otherwise bleak couple of days in Brooklyn, New York, thousands of podcast fans got a special treat: They got to be a part of My Favorite Murder

No, they didn’t become victims of some horrible bound-for-true-crime massacre, but rather they were invited into a pop-up version of My Favorite Murder’s original podcasting studio, the pod loft. After spending countless intimate hours listening to the show, these so-called Murderinos were finally able to embrace a version of the space they’d spent so much time haunting. It had been filled with fan art, listening experiences, and tributes to the pod’s motto of staying sexy and not getting murdered.

My Favorite Murder is far from the first podcast to do this. In fact, it wasn’t the only one doing it on that dreary week in February. The pod loft was one of many installations at this year’s On Air Fest, which featured spaces dedicated to RadiolabThe HeartObject of Sound, and On BeingThe Podcast Experience, as it was dubbed, may have seemed a bit like a marketing push—an “activation,” in industry jargon—but it was also an exploration of the future of the genre. Now that about 220,000 podcasts hit Publish on at least one episode per week, their creators need new ways to keep fans engaged. They’ve sold shirts and gone on live tours, but if the On Air Fest asked anything it was this: What’s next?

Jemma Rose Brown, one of the event’s organizers, thinks the landscape has changed dramatically over the past two years. “The levers that could be pulled don’t exist in the same ways,” she says. “Now you have to create a moment, and you have to create a story. Every podcaster should be thinking about innovation and play and experimentation rather than just rinsing and repeating the same pile of episodes that they always make.” 

Podcasts have always been a deeply personal experience, thanks in part to how most people listen to them: With headphones in, on commutes or while cleaning, and without a whole lot of subsequent discussion among peers. Now, though, the most financially and creatively successful podcasts are the ones that are also cultivating their own communities, with hosts taking care to connect on a more personal level with the fans whose ears they’ve whispered into for all these years. There’s clout and kinship in being a Murderino, a Friend of the Pod, or part of the Daddy Gang

For Paul Scheer, cohost of How Did This Get Made? and Unspooled, “having a podcast is continually trying to grow it.” That means constantly coming up with new ways to keep things interesting for listeners. Scheer has done live shows, sure, but also started playing around with ways to engage on Twitch. Scheer has the benefit of name recognition—people might know him because he’s on shows like The League. Others just starting out may not have that advantage. “I think if it's just a podcast, you're going to have a harder time attracting new listeners,” he says. “Now you have to think about what people are doing, how they’re listening, and how they want to get involved with your show.” 

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Object of Sound host Hanif Abdurraqib’s quest for community meant turning his Podcast Experience domain into a listening lounge and hangout space where visitors could both spin their favorite tunes and step into a shower turned recording studio to lay down a message to the show. 

“So many portrayals of music fandom in film and television treat it as this sacred thing that has to be held close, like anyone who doesn't rise to your level of enthusiasm or who doesn't have an understanding of the things you do needs to be looked down upon,” says Abdurraqib. “With my room, I really wanted to upset that and tell people that I'm excited and eager to hear about what makes them excited about music.” 

Abdurraqib says he spent hours in his room “expanding his conversational canon” with listeners, chatting about everything from the best artists from Oklahoma to their first concert. That experience, he says, was important not just because it excited existing fans and potentially generated new ones, but because it helped generate genuine connection outside a digital realm. Abdurraqib, who is also a journalist, says he thinks it has become increasingly daunting to talk about music online, with everyone feeling both passionate and emboldened by anonymity. 

Chris Gethard gets this. It’s something he’s long prized as the host of Beautiful/Anonymous, where he has talked to people for hours about their lives, secrets, and desires. Now Gethard is planning to bring those conversations into the light with Beautiful/CONonymous, a weekend in May of in-person activities for fans of the show. “With Beautiful/Anonymous, we’ve spent seven years establishing this idea of a community, one conversation at a time, which is kind of a strange and intense thing to do,” he says. “Now we're gonna spend the weekend really looking each other in the eye and being right there.”

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Many of the convention’s attendees will undoubtedly come from the podcast’s 35,000-member-strong Facebook community, which Gethard calls “one of the only genuinely chill, respectful corners of the internet.” Others, though, will come from the podcast’s long roster of previously anonymous guests. “We're going to have this whole convention where you can just walk around and be like, ‘There's the guys who bought a record store in Ohio. There's the 39-year-old grandma. There are the guys who are really into pickling and who yelled at me at that live show in Detroit …’” Gethard says. “Attendees will get to meet the people whose stories they’ve heard unfold over the years.”

There are more than 360 episodes of Beautiful/Anonymous, and that mountain of content has most certainly contributed to the show’s rabid fan base. Adam Sachs, senior vice president of podcast programming for SiriusXM, says he thinks shows like Gethard’s or Comedy Bang! Bang!, which just released its 800th episode, have built their communities thanks in part to the sheer volume of their work. “The longer you listen, the richer the experience,” says Sachs. “You can’t build a canon in 20 episodes. It’s really hard to establish inside jokes in a short amount of time.” 

Sachs knows this from experience. He came to SiriusXM when the company acquired Conan O’Brien’s podcast company, Team Coco. Even before O’Brien launched his own podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Team Coco had been acquiring a fan base and was able to build on that when the podcast launched. One big boost came from releasing episodes and clips on the YouTube channel that previously just hosted bits from O’Brien’s late-night shows. YouTube listenership of the podcast grew thanks to that, and Sachs says those fans appear to be different—and younger—than those who may have found the podcast via traditional audio methods.  

That doesn’t apply just to YouTube. Sachs notes that Podcrushed, which is cohosted by You star Penn Badgley, has more than 14 million TikTok followers consuming its clips, and at least some of of them are likely to become full episode listeners. 

Away from social media, You Must Remember This host Karina Longworth is teaming  with American Cinematheque for “Erotic Tuesdays,” a screening series at a Los Angeles theater, launching on March 28, of racy films featured in recent and upcoming episodes of her podcast. And The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman created a signature pasta shape, cascatelli, which has become so popular it’s now available in more than 2,000 stores.

From Scheer's point of view, building community is all about offering listeners (and potential listeners) a unique experience. For instance, when How Did This Get Made? tours, he and his cohort will record those conversations for eventual release but will also cut our parts, meaning only attendees of that actual show get the full experience. 

“I think that podcasting is taking over the slot that stand-up once had, because there are amazing stand-up comedians, but when you go out on the road with a podcast, you're going to see a different show every single night,” Scheer says. “Because of that, we'll have people follow us from town to town. It's kind of like going to see the Dead, in a way.”

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Then there’s Twitch, where he and HDTGM cohost Jason Mantzoukas recently live-reacted to the Fast X trailer, much to the delight of 130,000-odd viewers. Scheer says that after the Twitch stream was over, he removed the video from the service, then cut it down and released it as a podcast. Thus, he says, “if you weren't there for that stream, you couldn't see it.” He has also taken to posting old episodes to his YouTube channel under the heading “Matinee Monday.” 

It’s that kind of frequent messaging that people like On Air Fest’s Brown think can really help podcasts push forward into the future of the medium. “Everyone should be thinking about, How do I take that core nugget of what my show is and try to express it in different ways?” she says. “It’s all about repeating, repeating, repeating.” 

On Air Fest cofounder Scott Newman agrees, adding, “As much as listening is about pressing Play on your podcast app and having headphones in your ear, it’s much more about ideas and context and identity, as well as reflecting this moment in culture and the world.” Podcasts that are able to cultivate a fandom that wants in on that journey are the ones poised to survive.

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