Issue 302,  published April 20, 2021

How do you market rapport?

In the marketing materials for Pod Across the Pond, you’ll find brief descriptions of the show’s premise: a chatcast hosted by two American sisters, Erin and Shannon Huebscher, about their parallel experiences living in Germany and the U.S. What you won’t find, however, is any mention of the hosts’ comedic timing or the wells of knowledge they have about each other, which comes through as much on the show as it does when you just get them on the phone. (Shannon: “I can start, since I’m the oldest.” Erin: “I knew she was gonna do that.”) As with many other chatcasts, that’s the stuff that really makes the show pop, but it’s hard for a newcomer to know that without having already picked up the podcast.

The sisters’ synergy is the main reason they started the show, says Shannon, a devoted listener of personality- and relationship-driven shows. “The people that host them have a chemistry with each other that transcends the airwaves,” she explains, which she realized she didn’t have to limit herself to just consuming: “That is actually something that I have with my sister.”

Existing listeners of their show express that they enjoy the dynamic, says Shannon, but when asked if she and Erin think they effectively convey this energy to potential listeners — particularly in, say, the social media assets they’ve rolled out — the older Huebscher sighed. Ultimately, the component of their show that’s so vital for hooking listeners is also something that’s incredibly challenging to advertise: rapport.

You probably know what I mean if you’ve ever listened to a chatcast and thought, “I haven’t even read the book these people are discussing, but man, I could listen to them talk all day.” If the conversation is compelling, it has the capacity to tether you to topics that, on paper, maybe you’d never seek out on your own. But again, that’s a hard thing to efficiently communicate in the fast-moving media universe.

If chemistry, vibe, and rapport are things that keep listeners coming back, can they make them show up in the first place? How, in any intentional way, do you market those intangibles?

For the hosts I spoke to, it’s a continual challenge.

“Looking forward, I would hope that that’s something that becomes more obvious to people,” Huebscher says, imagining that potential listeners might pick up on her and her sister’s energy from audio clips or word of mouth. She points to My Favorite Murder as an example: “That’s never been marketed as — to your point— ‘listen to two friends talk about crime stories, then end up learning this loving friendship and business relationship.’” Yet, that’s ultimately what the show provides.

As has long been established by now, My Favorite Murder has a massive following, with listeners often praising the energy and interplay of the hosts in particular. What’s intrigued so many listeners for so many years — and made it the fifth-most-listened to show of 2020, according to Edison Research — is likely a combination of the hosts’ dynamic and the focus on true crime. The importance of the latter can’t be ignored, since such an in-demand topic is pretty likely to draw people in in the first place, which means working with subjects less popular than true crime often equals less likelihood that listeners make the gamble of clicking, which in turn means fewer opportunities for hosts to make a case with their voices alone.

Sometimes, hosts just get lucky. I was put onto Pod Across the Pond by a chance Google Alert; for many listeners of The Greatest Generation, it happened via press that hosts Ben Ahr Harrison and Adam Pranica received early in the show’s production. The former acknowledges that, given how many early listeners were funneled in, the show had the advantage of being able to speak for itself. But though lots of listeners have stuck around, gaining new ones requires strategy. While Star Trek, the focus of The Greatest Generation, is by no means an indie topic, Ahr Harrison and Pranica do still struggle with how to make their show the one people go to from the start; there are plenty of Star Trek competitors out there, after all. In that case, assuming a potential listener might fan through shows by cover art or descriptions, they try to make theirs stand out.

“We call the show ‘A Star Trek podcast by a couple of guys who are a little bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast’ not because we’re actually embarrassed to have this show, but more because we recognize that these aren’t the kinds of conversations we’d have in public in front of strangers,’” Ahr Harrison told me over email.

For them, the particular word “embarrassed” in their promotional materials has come to serve as a filter for new listeners, bringing in those who have a similarly nuanced relationship to the franchise and would likely appreciate hearing it reflected back to them. “I think a lot of them can relate to really loving a sci-fi show but not necessarily wanting to put that on main in a professional environment or on a first date,” Ahr Harrison wrote.

Capturing complexity is particularly important for the chatcast FANTI, which is less about a particular topic than it is about an approach. That approach, says co-host Jarrett Hill, is to complicate things that might otherwise be regarded as simple or be praised blindly. (The show’s title is a portmanteau of “fan” and “anti.”) Even more specific and central to the show, he says, is emphasizing the nuance of Black and queer individuals, which both he and co-host Tre’vell Anderson identify as. “We have complex ideas about things,” Hill says. “Mind you, I’m usually right and Tre’vell’s usually wrong, but that’s not what we’re discussing.”

FANTI topics vary widely, as do how listeners might react to them. “I hope that folks just feel like they can be involved in the conversations that we’re having and that it challenges them and pushes them to think differently,” Anderson says. With something so variable being arguably hard to capture and market, what the pair chose to focus on — what they felt they really could focus on — was the diversity of opinion and experience that Anderson and Hill themselves bring to each conversation. To this end, the team concocted specific visuals.

For an early photoshoot, says Anderson, “we wanted each of our faces to convey some conflicting energy. So if he was smiling, I was supposed to have a ratchet face on or something like that, to be kind of a visual representation of our dynamic and the uniqueness of our personalities.” You can see this most vividly in the first iteration of FANTI’s cover art, which presents “tension, if you will, in our expressions,” says Anderson.

Ultimately, though, just getting audio in front of folks is what makes the most difference, says Hill, and to that end, he and Anderson have previously arranged for episodes of FANTI to be distributed through other show’s feeds, which resulted in a surge of new listeners. Words can only say so much about a show, notes Hill; it’s, in his words, “more valuable to give it a shot.”

As it goes, to get someone to give it a shot, there sometimes isn’t much more one can do than say, as Anderson does in the FANTI trailer, “trust me — you’re gonna love it.”

For now, the Huebschers are relying on such trust, since once they’re heard, charm can take over. Erin says their rapport on the show, which launched in January 2021, is already getting attention. “What we’ve heard from people that have tuned in so far is that they feel that.”

“We don’t know exactly how they’re finding us,” Shannon notes, which Erin affirms.

“Like the Saudi Arabia one,” she laughs. “I have no idea who found us in Saudi Arabia.”

Aria has been reporting since 2015, making audio since 2016. She’s moved between the two worlds, but here, she’s in both.