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Insider: November 19, 2020 — Follow-up to Right Wing Pods, Revolving Door, Algorithms and Pavement

Follow-up to the Rise of Right Wing Podcasts. I confess that I was a little reluctant to write about the apparent rise of right-wing podcasts for this week’s column, largely because I’m fairly sure it’s something that’s been happening well before this moment, and I happen to be the kind of reader that gets annoyed whenever I see a piece claiming a trend as something new even though it’s been around for a long time.

That said, I think I framed Tuesday’s column in such a way that doesn’t suggest the contemporary presence of explicitly right-wing political podcasts to be anything new. Rather, my intent was to communicate that what newness there was chiefly revolved around the sense that a specific cluster of right-wing podcasts have accelerated in visible prominence over the course of the Trump presidency, and then especially so over the past election year, and absolutely since election day itself.

Now, because I got some haughty responses about this: yes, I’m perfectly aware there have been efforts in conservative podcasting for a good number of years now, perhaps even preceding the Trump presidency. One such example: back in 2016, I aggregated a Wired piece by Charley Locke — who, by the way, has been a Hot Pod contributor — about a conservative media organization called Ricochet, which sports a podcast network as part of its output.

It’s really interesting to go back through Charley’s piece, which was published a mere two months before Trump’s expected win in that presidential cycle. Looking over the text, I’m struck by what feels the same and what feels not only different, but surreally so.

Here are the opening two paragraphs:

Thanks to the intimacy of audio and the antics of Trump, this election cycle is bringing listeners an unprecedented spate of opinionated incredulity. Political podcast pundits abound: Slate’s Political Gabfest and Trumpcast; NPR Politics; FiveThirtyEight Elections; Vox’s The Weeds. Two members of Obama’s administration have even started their own political podcasts: director of speechwriting Jon Favreau, on The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, and senior adviser David Axelrod, on The Axe Files.

But there’s not much ideological diversity in the conversation. As of this writing, the only conservative shows in iTunes’ News & Politics top 50 are rebroadcasts of syndicated talk shows: Glenn Beck’s, and Mark Levin’s. Podcasts have proven a viable platform to reach a liberal audience, just as radio talk shows have for conservative listeners. But what does that mean for the Americans in the middle? If you see November’s vote as choosing the lesser of two evils, where can you listen?

(Man, what a long fucking four years it’s been.)

Within that passage, you can see the identified liberal lean of the podcast ecosystem, at least as represented on the upper echelons of the Apple Podcast charts — a prior that grounded Tuesday’s column — and you can see the seeds of the right-wing podcast boom that we see today. Relatedly, 2016 was the same year that Westwood One struck a partnership with The Ben Shapiro Show, then relatively new, which would go on to grow at an accelerating pace over the succeeding years.

Ricochet is still around, I believe, operating at what seems to be a modest scale. The website possesses a blog-like construct, and ideologically, they seem closer to the Never Trumper side of the political right spectrum, meaning that they were probably politically homeless over the four years. Also likely: now that we’re (probably) heading into the Biden presidency, they will almost certainly be further pushed to the side by the Lincoln Project, which to me feels like a bizarre grift, but one that seems to be popular enough to seed a whole new media enterprise nevertheless.

In any case, just so we’re clear: the main point of Tuesday’s column wasn’t to identify the existence of conservative and right-wing podcasts, but to specifically focus on the fact that (a) the cluster of high-profile right-wing shows that I identified in the piece have come to occupy significant visible real estate in the podcast ecosystem on a consistent basis, thus fundamentally striking down the prior that there is no ideological diversity in the podcast conversation, and (b) how that cluster is intimately connected with the broader right-wing media infrastructure that unambiguously wields tremendous influence over contemporary politics. I simply don’t think you could’ve argued (b) four years ago.

And shit, we’re not even talking about the far-right, alt-right, and conspiracy theory stuff that you’ll occasionally find bubbling around the charts. That’s a whole other phenomenon altogether.What about Jesus, though? Speaking of a whole other phenomenon, one genre that popped up a lot in reader responses as a prominent example of early conservative podcasts is a swathe of shows within the Religious & Spiritual category. You’ve likely seen some of these podcasts populate the upper echelons of the Apple Podcast charts over the years: Joel Osteen Podcast, Unashamed with Phil & Jase Robertson, and so on.

I get the argument around sorting these shows into the conservative category, and I did consider bringing them up in the column, but decided against it for a similar reason: my sense is that it’s important to think about this type of show as a separate phenomenon from the right-wing podcasts I wanted to talk about. They are, of course, related, in that they are often integrated into the broader Republican political machine in manners overt and covert. But I dunno, I tend to view Christian talk radio and right-wing talk radio as separate but interacting media ecosystems, and I think you can translate that framework onto the spread in podcasting.Revolving Door. Coincidence or otherwise, two Chief Financial Officer appointments were announced yesterday:

  • Art19 has hired David Murray, formerly the Chief Financial Officer of Stitcher, to the role. The press release states that Murray will “help lead the company’s expansion from pure SaaS business into a full-fledged media company, including content creation and ad sales.”

  • Meanwhile, New York Public Radio has named Armando Gutierrez as Chief Financial Officer. He joins from the CBS Corporation, and he starts on December 2.

This Week in Spotify. Quick one here. This Stereogum piece on why an obscure Pavement track has been blowing up on Spotify over the past few years has been bubbling up all over my Twitter feed — for good reason. It’s a fascinating read on unintentional outcomes of seemingly minor platform changes, how it speaks to the disproportional power dynamic between platforms and creators, and how the opacity of algorithms increasingly shape tangible cultural horizons.

This is largely a music streaming story, but come on: as we’ve discussed for years, all audio formats are being pushed to a convergence point, so obviously, their business should be our business.Speaking of digital audio convergence… This is super interesting.

From YouTube’s corporate blog:

To help you tailor your media and creative approach to the different ways consumers are engaging with YouTube, we’re introducing audio ads, our first ad format designed to connect your brand with audiences in engaged and ambient listening on YouTube. Audio ads, currently in beta, help you efficiently expand reach and grow brand awareness with audio-based creative and the same measurement, audience and brand safety features as your video campaigns.

Strong monetary acknowledgement of a YouTube user behavior that’s been known for a while now: that lots of people use it as a primary music listening platform.

People like me! LO FI HIP HOP GIRL FOREVER.Speaking of ambient listening… Quick shout-out to friend of the newsletter Kyle Chayka’s essay in the New Yorker earlier this week about Ambient Television, which, no, isn’t anything particularly new, but then again, Kyle’s piece was really about how algorithmically-driven or -informed platforms contemporarily respond to on-platform feedback loops by pushing more resources into a kind of ambient-ish programming that’s aesthetically contiguous to something like lo fi hip hop livestreams, etc.