I Hope You Feel Better

podcasting's top genres, and paying attention to intention

Today we are going to take a peek at the latest genre rankings in podcasting and a modest milestone for the medium, by way of Newcastle, New York, and Beverly Hills.

First, I want to start with an apology. Earlier this week, I wrote a critique of Clubhouse, the new social audio service. I have used Clubhouse a lot in the past few weeks, and I really enjoy catching up with people and the intimacy of small, social rooms. The large, public rooms that float to the top of my feed, however--well, there be dragons. Ultimately, Clubhouse is a loudocracy. It rewards one skill in particular--the ability to push yourself to the front of the room. It doesn't fulfill the promise of "social audio" in the same way that Discord does, or that I hope Twitter Spaces will do. But it's fun, within limits. I wrote about this at length on Medium in an article called You're Going To Ruin Clubhouse. You can read it there, if you'd like.

Here's the apology: this article made some people feel bad. I have friends and acquaintances who are fully invested in Clubhouse or are at least getting value from it. My critique of Clubhouse felt, I think, like an attack on them. It wasn't--I just want Clubhouse to be better, or to find the something else that is better, because it's a category that I am invested in (I mean, you are reading I Hear Things, so audio is kinda my beat and your interest, at least to some extent!) I'm not going to say "I'm sorry if you thought this was an attack on you." Conditionals do not an apology make, my adult friends. I'm sorry I made you feel bad. This is the opposite of how I wish to make you feel. I don't think Clubhouse is great, not yet. But I do think you are.

It's easy to be snarky--it can often be my default reaction to things. Maybe that is true for you, as well. But snarky doesn't age well. Sometimes, you just get sick of snark--it can be the air that you breathe, if you let it. Often, a change of scenery can help. In fact, I once picked myself up out of the slough of despond with a trip to, of all places, Newcastle, England. I've spent a lot of time in the U.K.—I lived in London for a while, and have worked in most of the major markets throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. I love Manchester (SO MUCH TO ANSWER FOR) and its music, as much a product of the land as the chalk from Dover. But of all the places I've been throughout the scepter'd isle, none hold the unique place in my heart that Newcastle does.

I spent some time in the late 90's in Newcastle doing music research for the launch of a new radio station, which was to be Galaxy North East. Galaxy was a fantastic brand--positive, upbeat, and the home of dance music during the era that really birthed the "Superstar DJ." It was the place to hear Darude, Basement Jaxx, or Armand van Helden. And it sounded great in Newcastle. In the process of doing the format research for the new station, though, the most startling insight about the market was not how well Paul van Dyk tested. It was about the people. This wasn't London. This wasn't Manchester. Newcastle was a different dog. The "target demographic" for the station weren't listening to The Verve or Oasis or the morbid humor of Manchester's Smiths, the soundtrack to my college years. They wanted to dance, get out, and have a laugh. I was nearly unable to process how relentlessly positive the people I talked to were.

When the project was done, I canceled my flight home and stayed a couple of extra days at the Malmaison hotel, overlooking the Tyne. Whatever they were drinking, I wanted some of that. The station reflected it. People wanted to feel good. It spun me around a bit. I had come into Newcastle at the end of a long batch of international projects, tired and cynical. But Newcastle was lovely because the people actually were lovely--and the station had to reflect that, genuinely, if it were going to succeed. It couldn't be wry, or jaded. It had to be, and was, a Small, Good Thing, to quote my favorite Raymond Carver story. I loved that station, and I still love that city.

I was reminded of all of that this week, when my friend Sean Ross wrote about the imminent 25th anniversary of WKTU in New York. WKTU was launched at a time in the mid-90s when New York City was coming out of a lull. The previous decade saw the Big Apple go through some very turbulent times, and the music reflected that to some extent. The Top 40/Pop station in town (Z-100) was playing a lot of alt-rock and grunge at the time. Amongst Z-100's top songs of 1995 were bands like Live, Pearl Jam, Green Day and Sponge (???) Yes, this was "pop" in 1995. Sean can wax more intelligently about this than I, but I would just sum it up as a little dark, for a Top 40 station. It reflected the times, maybe.

WKTU sprung from the ashes of WYNY, which was a country station in NYC with a lot of listeners, but no one could sell it. The decision was made to blow it up and find a new format. Often, when radio stations choose to change formats, they look at "product holes" -- i.e., who is most known for Oldies music, and is that position assailable? KTU was a little different. From the get-go, the station was not built on the product, but on how people wanted to feel. Even from the decision to bring back the call letters WKTU, which were last used for Disco 92 (b. 1978 - d. 1985), it was going to be a dance station. We all knew that. But it was never a station that sold itself as "New York's Best Dance Music," or "The Best Hits of the 70s, 80s, and Today!" It was the station that made you want to go out to clubs again, or at least believe you could. It was the station girls would put on and listen to with their mothers in the car. It was the station the boys would listen to because they wanted to be with the girls. It was the station that would reliably play and own, as then-Program Director Frankie Blue taught me, "the song of the summer." The morning show was RuPaul and Michelle Visage, currently the stars of Drag Race. The station was RuPaul. Genuine, upbeat, and never, ever cynical. It made you feel good.

WKTU didn't reflect the times. It was an aspiration for the times. It shone a beacon forward to where New York wanted to be, not where it was. The music strategy was set by Guy Zapoleon and the late Steve Rivers, and working with them for the time that I did was essentially like attending the Oxford of programming. My small role was to execute the music research--I was pretty young. I'd like to tell you I was 7 in 1995, but lets just say I was "early career." I did the music testing, and Steve and Guy and Frankie and Mark St. John and Jeff Z. would turn it into The Beat of New York (which the station eventually used as its tag line.) It played this in the first hour:

Finally.

I was very proud of my small part. I even got a quick thank you on the air from the head of the group that owned KTU (I'm at 2:30 on this clip) and it remains one of the absolute highlights of my career. We launched the station by re-opening Studio 54, bringing back the glorious club days of NYC with 35% less cocaine. WKTU literally went from worst to first in one quarter. It did this because it made New York feel good, a thing Maya Angelou tells us people never forget.

I think it is important, mid-pandemic, that all of us who create content set an intention for how we want people to feel. Recently, we delivered our latest quarterly Podcast Consumer Tracker report to clients. Besides measuring the relative audience size and demographics of every podcast network, we also record the top genres of podcasts by actual consumption. I won't print the whole list here (we will do so at some point) but here are the top five podcast genres of 2020:

Genre Ranker: Q1 - Q4, 2020

  1. Comedy

  2. Society and Culture

  3. News

  4. Sports

  5. True Crime

Comedy is #1 by a lot, I might add. Does this mean that your next show should be a comedy podcast? Of course not. But think about why Comedy was so huge in 2020. We felt bad. We don't want to feel bad. Think about New York City in February 1996. It wanted to feel better. 2021 is probably pretty similar, no?

I am also delighted to see Society and Culture rank so high, as well. It's a sign of just how far podcasting has come. I mean, look at this list someone made of the Top 10 Podcast Episodes of 2005. Thought provoking? Yes. Interesting? Without doubt. Fun? About as fun as my business school course catalog. There is an important place for tech, and startups, and innovation, and all of the other topics podcasting largely concerned itself with in its early days--those were and ARE important voices to the medium. But "interesting" is just one bar to clear. There are others.

All of that brings me to this modest milestone for podcasting, as published in today's New York Times: Paris Hilton Has A Podcast, With A Twist. You may or may not be a Paris Hilton fan. She is certainly not the first celebrity to do a podcast--there's nothing "first" about this story at all. But still, I highlight it as important. I've done many interviews for articles about podcasting for the New York Times and spoken at length to the various beat writers at other news organizations. Those articles are generally to be found in the Technology section of your paper. But this article (and a few others Reggie Ugwu has authored for the Times) is in the Pop Culture section of the paper. That I am quoted in an article about Paris Hilton in the pop culture section of the NYT is an utter delight for me.

This, then, is the word of the day: delight. I've always maintained that the function of marketing (not advertising) is to delight a customer, profitably, and everything into which this statement unpacks. There is always going to be a market for podcasts that are informative, or educational, or insightful. But let us also not forget that in a time in which nothing seems to work right, podcasts can delight. I've waxed plenty about Curiosity Daily in this newsletter (by now you may think it's the only podcast I listen to) but I listen faithfully because it is a show about science that never makes me feel uninformed, or patronized, or stupid for not knowing a thing. It makes me feel genuine wonder at the world. It transmits delight. I know they set that intention. Paris Hilton's podcast (like the launch of WKTU, and yes, being on Clubhouse) will be aspirational for many. It will make them feel good. It will be a cause for delight.

Soon we will be releasing our Infinite Dial 2021 audience estimate for podcasting. I am sure it has grown. But what is more satisfying to me is that podcasts aren't just consumed, but enjoyed. Loved, even. Setting an intention for how you want people to feel, and not just what you are going to talk about, is your show's North Star.

I say this in all sincerity: I hope you feel better.

Tom

If this gave you some delight, I hope you’ll subscribe, forward, and/or share, as you see fit.

Photo Credit: Marian Baston, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons