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End of Year Lists, but for Platforms

Sifting through Apple, Spotify, and Podtrac's "Most Listened" lists for meaning

December isn’t just for critics and culture writers to dole out their picks from the year, but also, it seems, for various platforms to dish on what was popular within their respective domains. I’ve been sifting through Spotify’s Music in 2018 playlists, which is always cool (and vaguely horrifying, as far as my own listening habits are concerned), but for us here in podcast-land, we now have three resources to pore over.

We begin, of course, with Apple. (Majority listening mediation, so on and so forth.)

i. Apple Podcasts

Shouts to the Apple team for giving us a look into the shows that perform the most rigorously on their platform. There are a bunch of insights to pull from the list, and I’d love to hear what you think, but I’m going to keep mine short and curt.

But before we dive into the list, a quick preface: when I first spotted the Apple Podcast breakout page and the accompanying Apple newsroom post, my initial impression was that the “Most Downloaded” lists were in unranked order. I checked with the comms team, and as it turns out, they were. As such, I’m re-running those lists here in the format that was given to me in the response.

Here’s the Most Downloaded Shows of 2018 chart in ranked order:

  1. The Daily
  2. The Joe Rogan Experience
  3. Stuff You Should Know
  4. Fresh Air
  5. The Dave Ramsey Show
  6. My Favorite Murder with Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
  7. TED Talks Daily
  8. Up First
  9. The Ben Shapiro Show
  10. Pod Save America
  11. This American Life
  12. TED Radio Hour
  13. Planet Money
  14. Pardon My Take
  15. Freakonomics Radio
  16. The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz
  17. Up and Vanished
  18. Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations
  19. The Bill Simmons Podcast
  20. Stuff You Missed in History Class
  21. Hidden Brain
  22. The Herd with Colin Cowherd
  23. NPR Politics Podcast
  24. Radiolab
  25. Adam Carolla Show

What do you see? Personally, I’d pay very close attention to the publishing volumes. Nearly half of the listed 25 followed a daily publishing schedule — some even dropping multiple episodes in a day, e.g. The Dave Ramsey Show — while a smaller chunk, like The Bill Simmons Podcast, Planet Money, and Pod Save America, do multiple drops a week. It’s simple math: the more you give, the more you can get. (An alternate construction: the more you give, the more ad slots you can sell, no? There’s a connection here to the Wild Thing column I wrote a few weeks back.)

It’s within the framework, though, that make pure weekly shows like This American Life and Radiolab feel even more impressive. Impressive… but unreplicable. Both podcasts have been around for a long time, and both are also legendary shows.

(As an aside: the complexity of how publishing schedules interact and interfere with the way we read these download lists is something that frustrates me quite a bit. That’s why I quite like the per-episode average construct that the Serial team used to talk about the performance of its latest season relative to seasons past. That’s a better apples-to-apples rubric, as far as publishing schedules are concerned.)

Anyway, shouts to My Favorite Murder for the smart move of doing “mini-episodes” to fill the days between full releases.

Also: shouts to The Daily for bagging first place. It’s come to a point that I get emails from annoyed readers whenever I write or say this out loud, but: what that team has achieved in a relatively short amount of time is nothing less than remarkable, and their contributions to the ecosystem writ large should never be undersold.

Also also: Politics and sports, politics and sports. As a huge consumer of both genres, their prominence in the list is unsurprising. By the way, you should pair The Dan Le Batard Show finding with recent data floated by ESPN’s corporate blog: in October, Le Batard led the sport giant’s portfolio with 8.3 million downloads.

Also also also: The Ben Shapiro Show vs. Pod Save America is an interesting narrative to track, and if I were a political pundit, I’d say something frivolous about how this is a proxy for young political America, but I’m not a political pundit, and I’d also never say something like that out loud. I’d think it, though.

Also also also also: The Daily vs. Up First is… a narrative that’s probably been solved, now?

And while you’re sifting through that list: don’t forget that you can view different lists for different countries. (Just scroll down on the Apple Podcast iTunes page and look for the circle flag on the bottom right.) Interestingly enough, the UK’s “Most Downloaded Shows” list only has ten entries: four of which are from the BBC.

So that’s the top 25 list for existing shows. Here are the Most Downloaded New Podcasts (defined as shows that were launched in 2018) in ranked order:

  1. Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard
  2. The Daily Show With Trevor Noah: Ears Edition
  3. Today, Explained
  4. Dr. Death
  5. Talk Is Jericho
  6. The Morning Toast
  7. Business Wars
  8. The Wilderness
  9. Conspiracy Theories
  10. The RFK Tapes
  11. The Teacher’s Pet
  12. Aaron Mahnke’s Cabinet of Curiosities
  13. Oprah’s Master Class: The Podcast
  14. Caliphate
  15. 15 Minutes to Freedom: A Daily Action Guide to Maximizing Your Life
  16. RISE Together Podcast
  17. The goop Podcast
  18. The Habitat
  19. Get Up!
  20. WorkLife with Adam Grant
  21. The Russillo Show
  22. Trump, Inc.
  23. The Walk
  24. Nobody Told Me!
  25. Unexplained Mysteries

What do you see? I see a mix of:

  • True Crime
  • Inside-genre projects from established teams (The Wilderness, The RFK Tapes, Worklife with Adam Grant)
  • Celebrity-driven projects
  • Interestingly, some projects with TV pushes (The Daily Show, Get Up!), suggesting that maybe frequent shout-outs or visual placements on television work as a conversion channel. (Bodes well for Bag Man, I suppose.)

Anyway, I find myself surprised by the non-true crime limited run-series that made the list: in particular, The Walk and The Habitat. But I suspect the prevailing theory grouping those two projects together are their relatively early-year drop dates: January and April, respectively.

Shouts to Today, Explained, by the way.

ii. Spotify

The Swedish music streaming platform has had an interesting year in podcasting: signing buzzy (though somewhat confusing) content deals with Amy Schumer and Joe Budden, updating its premium user interface in a way that moderately improves podcast placement, while finally opening up the platform to any podcast RSS feed in October. Meanwhile, in the company’s latest shareholder letter, Spotify asserts that its “overall market share of podcasts globally continues to grow,” though it remains unclear just by how much.

Spotify published its own newsroom post that includes a podcast breakout, but interestingly enough, the “most-streamed” list only highlights shows that are exclusive to Spotify. Here’s the spread:

  1. Fest & Flauschig
  2. The Joe Budden Podcast with Rory & Mal
  3. Dissect
  4. Amy Schumer Presents: 3 Girls, 1 Keith
  5. TALK-O-MAT

What’s Fest & Flauschig? Well, it’s a German-language broadcast-turned-podcast that’s been on Spotify since 2016-ish. It’s my understanding that it’s fairly popular in, well, Germany.

There are limited insights that we can pull from this list, other than to say: Spotify’s Exclusive Podcast strategy is fairly… hard to read.

Anyway, Spotify also published the most-streamed podcast genres on its platform, and this presumably includes shows that aren’t Spotify exclusives:

  1. Crime and Mystery
  2. Comedy
  3. News & Politics
  4. Health
  5. Arts

True crime: the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, now and forever more.

iii. Podtrac

Quick one here: the podcast measurement company published its list on the “Top 10 New Podcasts of 2018,” and according to a blurb at the bottom of the post, it includes shows that are both measured and not measure by Podtrac. (For the latter, the company apparently uses “a proprietary algorithm to estimate download data” for those shows.) The analytics are said to capture listening across all devices and platforms. So it’s hard-bounded in some ways, not so hard-bounded in other ways. I continue to long for the day that we get the one measurement-platform to rule them all, but until then, I will linger with the puzzle pieces.

Also, one other thing to note: the list is based on “average downloads per episode” to account for different publishing schedules and structures.

Here’s the Podtrac Ten:

  1. Dr. Death
  2. Gladiator
  3. Happy Face
  4. Bag Man
  5. Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard
  6. WorkLife with Adam Grant
  7. This is Love
  8. Unobscured
  9. Oprah’s Master Class
  10. Caliphate

Okay, I hope this is helpful. Though, as always, the more I think through something, the more I realize just how little I know. (And/or can trust anything.)

Wow that was a rambling, sprawling piece. Sorry to go all stream-of-consciousness on you.

[Correction, December 11, 2018: An earlier version of this post noted that Podtrac’s Top 10 New Podcasts of 2018 list does not cover podcasts that aren’t measured by the company. This is not the case, and I regret the error.]