In 2016, Morgan Mandriota and Lester Lee, freelance writers looking to grow their personal brands, decided to start a podcast.
They called it “The Advice Podcast” and put about as much energy into the show’s production as they did the name. Each week, the friends, neither of whom had professional experience dispensing advice, met in a free room at the local library and used a smartphone to record themselves chatting.
“We assumed we’d be huge, have affiliate marketing deals and advertisements,” Mandriota said.
They gave up the podcast after just six episodes when it became evident that fame and fortune were not going to come calling.
It’s no wonder that the phrase “everyone has a podcast” has become a Twitter punch line.
Like the blogs of yore, podcasts are today’s de rigueur medium, seemingly adopted by every entrepreneur, freelancer, self-proclaimed marketing guru and even corporation. (Who doesn’t want branded content by Home Depot and Goldman Sachs piped into their ears on the morning commute?)
There are now an estimated 700,000 podcasts, according to the podcast production and hosting service Blubrry, with 2,000 to 3,000 shows being launched each month.
There’s no shortage of advice on the topic. How-to books abound, among them “So You Want to Start a Podcast,” “Podcasting Hacks” and “Podcasting for Profit.” There is also a compendium, published by Podcast Junkies, titled “The Incredibly Exhaustive List of Podcasts about Podcasting.”
And yet the frequency with which podcasts start — and then end, or “podfade,” as it’s coming to be known in the trade — has produced a degree of cultural exhaustion. We’re not necessarily sick of listening to interesting programs, but we’re definitely tired of hearing from every wannabe star who thinks they’re just an iPhone recording away from creating the next “Serial.”
“Anyone can start one, and so anyone who thinks they can start one will do it,” said Nicholas Quah, who runs an industry newsletter called Hot Pod. “It’s like the business of me.”
“Being a podcast host plays into people’s self-importance,” said Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. “The thing about podcasts is that it’s very, very hard to determine popularity. It’s easy for the host to appear to be an influencer. And whether anybody finds that podcast or listens to it and the bounce rate — who knows?”
People use all kinds of metrics to tout the popularity of their shows, whether it’s the number of iTunes reviews they get or the total downloads they receive per month. These metrics mean different things and don’t necessarily connote success, North said.
But having a big audience doesn’t necessarily matter. “When people interview experts, even if nobody ever listens to the podcast, hosts get the benefit of learning from and networking with the guest,” she said. “It’s a great stunt.”
Call him cynical, but for the past few years, Jordan Harbinger, host of “The Jordan Harbinger Show” podcast, in which he interviews business experts, has given a talk titled “For the Love of God, Please Don’t Start Another Podcast.”
“It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek, obviously,” he said. “I love podcasting, and the more shows in the mix the better, as long as they’re done by someone who actually cares and isn’t just trying to get a piece of pie.”
What needs to be created, he said, is “a real conversation that will benefit the audience, not the host.”
He thinks there is a “podcast industrial complex.” Hosts aren’t starting shows “because it’s a fun, niche hobby,” he said. “They do it to make money or because it will make them an influencer.”
There’s no available data comparing podcast formats, such as how many interview shows exist and how many are news programs or narrative journalism. But industry analysts and production companies say that so-called “bantercasts,” in which the host and guests chitchat for an hour or more, make up the bulk of new productions.
“So many of these are just painful,” said Tom Webster, the senior vice president of Edison Research, which tracks consumer media behavior. “We revere the great interviewers, but it’s an incredible skill that nobody has. What did Terry Gross do before she had her own show? Well, she was an interviewer, not a marketer for a software company.”
Steve Pratt, a veteran Canadian Broadcasting Corp. producer who now runs a podcasting company called Pacific Content, actively discourages his clients from starting interview shows. Just because Joe Rogan can do it well, Pratt said, doesn’t mean the average Joe can.
He likes to remind clients that the average American commute is under half an hour (about 27 minutes, according to census data) so you’ve got to respect people’s time. The key is to “put yourself in the listener’s shoes over and over again,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mandriota is giving podcasting another go. Her new attempt is an interview-style show about sex and relationships, and she’s committed to a longer run than “The Advice Podcast.”
“I’m going to have a set strategy, do the research and make sure I know what I’m doing, instead of just seeing what sticks,” she said. “It definitely won’t be taped at a library where janitors are walking around, yelling in the background of each episode.”