Last summer marked an exciting stretch for Teenager Therapy, the popular chatcast that serves as a platform for five high schoolers — Gael Aitor, Mark Hugo, Isaac Hurtado, Thomas Pham, and Kayla Suarez — to host open and candid conversations about teen mental health, the issues they face, and their lives. In July, the podcast became the subject of a New York Times profile, which led to a strong run of press that saw the group appearing on CNN, Good Morning America, and On Point, among other places. That bump in attention directly led to another high point: In October, the show featured a guest appearance by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, who invited the group to their Montecito home where they recorded an episode for World Mental Health Day.
The podcast has a fascinating backstory, which you can read up on in the Times piece, but equally interesting is the show as an entrepreneurial venture. There aren’t very many prominent podcasts entirely led by young people, and in a broader digital media universe that generally associates the “creator/influencer” archetype with the comparatively young operating with full agency (see: TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and so on), the fact that the Teenager Therapy crew has built out a following primarily in podcasting, which typically skews older on the creation side, makes them something of an anomaly.
Apple Podcasts gave Teenager Therapy the Spotlight program treatment last month, which I figured made for a good opportunity to reach out and learn more about the state of the show, the shape of the business, and what comes next for the production since its summer of press. To that end, I was able to jump on the phone last week with Gael Aitor, the show’s point person of sorts. As it turned out, the day we connected was also decision day for applicants to the University of Southern California. Aitor was among those eager to learn about admission results, though, as we made small talk, he noted that he was still weighing whether he wanted to go to college in the first place or stick around to work on the business.
Interestingly enough, that set the tone for our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hot Pod: I’ve gotten the impression that Teenager Therapy has been on a roll for the past year or so, or maybe just since the summer. How have things been?
Gael Aitor: Oh man, the past year has been wild. Summer 2020 was definitely our biggest period yet. Everything changed then, which is kind of funny, because there’s this theory that it takes about two years to know whether your business is going to fail or blow up. We were actually just about to hit two years at that point, and things started to happen.
People were writing about us. We were interviewed on CNN, the TODAY show, and Good Morning America. We were getting a bunch of offers for brand deals and stuff. It was a chaotic but fun period, and the amount of achievement we were doing each day was pretty remarkable. I think we picked up some traction after that, and we’ve just been trying to build on it. This was definitely the year where people began to take us seriously, when we went from a small unknown podcast into a show that’s leading the game in terms of teenage-produced podcasts.
HP: How big is the show nowadays?
Aitor: Right now, we have about 560,000 followers on Spotify. I’m not sure how much we have on other platforms. I think Spotify makes up about half [of the show’s audience]; the rest is Apple Podcasts and other platforms. On Instagram, we have around 50 to 51K, and we just got verified on Twitter today, which is pretty great.
Aitor: Thank you, thank you.
HP: Tell me about the brand deals that the show has been getting. How do you think through those kinds of things?
Aitor: So, the biggest move we’ve made in that regard is to work with Flighthouse. I don’t know if you’re familiar, but they’re the largest brand on TikTok; they have over 27 million followers on there. I interviewed Jacob Pace and Jake Trevino [Flighthouse CEO and Brand Director, respectively] in 2019, and they liked the show. We started talking afterwards and I was like, “maybe there’s an opportunity to partner here.” A few months later, we officially joined forces, and they’ve been helping us get the business side together. We’re more the creative side, and they’ve offered a lot of support and help bring deals to the table that we can choose whether we want to do or not.
So far, we’ve done deals with JanSport, Hollister, Depop, Headspace, a few others. Whenever we approach these kinds of deals, we’re very aware that we’re not the biggest podcast out there getting millions or hundreds of thousands of downloads, but what we do have in our favor is the fact that we’re basically one of the only consistently run teenage mental health podcasts in the world. That identity itself has been super helpful in getting brands to work with us, because I think a lot of brands want to help their target audience — usually younger customers, which is our demographic — with the issues they’re facing, and one of the biggest issues they’re facing is mental health.
And how do you help them? You speak to them directly. What a lot of these brands have been looking for is a good representative of that message. They come to us for that, because they know our audience trusts us and we have a good relationship with them.
HP: How do you typically approach working with brands?
Aitor: When we were a smaller podcast, I didn’t really know what we were doing. We definitely didn’t know our worth or how to sell ads. We just did the basic $20 COM midroll, pre-roll, or something like that. Nothing big. But recently, as we started picking up more steam, I felt like I really didn’t want to do those. I wanted to do more meaningful stuff, because if we’re going to work with a brand, we wanted to select those that care about our mission and share the same values as us. So we decided to stop doing midrolls and pre-rolls that were just basic and surface level. We started to fully commit to a brand that comes to us and we want to work with. We decided to do things with these brands that are really cool and can resonate with people, so it doesn’t just get lost in the middle of an episode.
With that approach, we’ve been doing more custom stuff. We’ve done fully customized episodes if a brand comes to us and says, “We want to talk about issues surrounding college and stress — how can we do that?” Then we’ll plan out an episode, select a topic, talk to different people, get our point of view, and then plug in the brand in a way that’s natural and organic. We also do stuff like livestreams and Instagram takeovers and giveaways, stuff to help our audience.
HP: How do you think about maintaining trust with your audience while doing these brand integrations? Do you have an ethics policy?
Aitor: We definitely want to work with brands that share the same values as us, because we understand we have that trust with our audience. That trust is very present to us, we notice it when we message with our listeners and they’re telling us about their depression. Because of that, we’re really selective. We can tell when a brand is just saying that they care about mental health just to look good, or if they’re actually putting in the work: doing donations, advocacy, stuff like that. So we try to only work with brands that actually carry the message forward. We’ve definitely been approached by companies that clearly have no genuine intent when it comes to helping our mission, and we’ve passed on those.
We try to stay in control of the script and avoid verbatim readings like, “Hey, we care about mental health and this brand does, too.” Some of the brands we’ve turned away were very much about sticking to a certain script, and we were like, “No, we prefer to do things our own way.” We know how to talk to our audience. Some brands try to use phrases they think are trendy with teens, and it just doesn’t sound like a teenager and more like a millennial thinks a teenager sounds like.
HP: Tell me about how you’re thinking about the future. Are you building out Teenager Therapy for the long run?
Aitor: Well, we’ve barely gotten started in terms of setting up a strategy for everything right now. We’re looking for more manpower to bring our vision to life. In the future, we’re hoping to turn Teenager Therapy into a lifelong business that surpasses even us, whether that means spinoff shows or passing down the podcast when we age out, like “Teenager Therapy Generation Two” or whatever it might be.
One thing that’s been exciting us is the idea of doing more lifestyle content. We have a lot of fun projects planned around that. We’re also looking forward to things like clothing. We’ve done three merch drops before, and those have done really well. It could be interesting to turn Teenager Therapy into a brand that you’d see at a place like Urban Outfitters. We’d just want to make really interesting products and clothes.
Apart from that, I’m also really excited to do more advocacy campaigns. We’re working on a campaign right now with a pretty big organization that’s going to target an issue that doesn’t get enough attention. Honestly, I just want to make as much noise as possible, get the attention of people, and use our platform to bring light to issues others aren’t really talking about.
HP: Are you in a position where you’d be comfortable to talk about the show’s revenue?
Aitor: You know, I’m not sure if I am. What I can say is that money is definitely something I want to talk about more, and on the show specifically. Because, honestly, it’s something people don’t talk about. So I’ll have to look into that.
But for now, I can say that once we started figuring out our worth and realizing that our weakness was that we’re not getting as many downloads as other people, but that we are one of the only ones in our space and our brand itself is worth a good amount, that’s when we started charging a very premium CPM for our episodes. A custom episode can run you five figures, easily, because that’s what we’re worth, and a lot of brands are willing to pay it because they understand the value of what we do.
HP: Is the entire business side of the show run through Flighthouse, or do you handle some stuff directly yourself?
Aitor: It’s always a group effort. They usually handle a good bit of it, since obviously I’m still new to this space and learning the ins and outs of business. I do my best to be as involved as possible in negotiations and deals, because this is something I’m really interested in. I love the business aspect of it. I give my input, and usually at the end, we collaboratively decide whether to take a partnership or whether it’s better just to leave it.
HP: How else have you been learning the ropes?
Aitor: Well, I’m very much a self-learner. I started a small dropshipping business when I was thirteen that grew into six figures in revenue. That experience taught me a lot about profit, handling money, and specifically marketing. I think marketing is one of my best skills, just learning how to get attention. That’s how I was able to grow the podcast to a couple thousand followers with zero ad budget.
Right now, the way I learn is just using Google a lot. Googling the right question is incredibly important. If there was a class I could teach in college, it would be that, because it unlocks so much knowledge, and learning how to learn is incredibly important.
I do a lot of stuff on Coursera, which offers a lot of free college courses. I recently finished something called an entrepreneurship specialization program by the Wharton Business School. It was free, it took me a few months, and I learned a lot about different business ideas, strategies, revenue models.
I also read a lot of business books, but the thing that has helped me learn the most is just experiencing it. Actually being a part of these deals and these conversations, and every time there’s a contract, I’ll look it over and try to figure out the terms that were made, how it helps the negotiations.
HP: Do you listen to podcasts a lot? What would you like to see more of in this space?
Aitor: Honestly, I don’t listen to podcasts as much. Actually, I go through phases. Some days, I’ll listen to a podcast every day, then I’ll stop for a bit and return to some of them. I’m not super immersed in the podcast world. I tend to pick up episodes here and there that I find interesting.
Overall, in this space, I really enjoy non-scripted shows, which there are a lot of. I think people really enjoy comfort. That’s something people get out of podcasts, and specifically, in the teenage podcast space, I just want to see more teenagers get into them. Right now, a lot of young people don’t even know what a podcast is, and I didn’t really know what a podcast was until like three years ago. It’s definitely something really new to a lot of people, but I know a lot of influencers who have been starting podcasts, and some of the biggest TikTokers have been starting podcasts themselves, and they’ve been pretty successful from what I’ve seen.
I would like to see more influencers, and also just, you know, more average young people starting podcasts and doing it consistently, because the more people of different backgrounds and cultures that we get sharing their voice, the greater the impact. Everyone gets to share their point of view, not just those at the top.
HP: Do you identify as an influencer?
Aitor: I wouldn’t say so. For a while, I thought I kinda wanted to be an influencer. But one day, and this was kind of odd, I was just brushing my teeth and had a sudden realization that I didn’t want to be one. I don’t think that world is something I’d enjoy. For me, it’s more about enjoying the business side of things, and specifically taking creative ideas and turning it into something. That’s a little more fun to me than the whole social media followers chase.
HP: Why don’t you think the influencer world is something you’d enjoy?
Aitor: It’s a lot of the superficial nature of it. I know a lot of influencers who have a certain group of friends on-camera that everyone thinks they’re close with, but then off-camera, they’re totally separate from them and actually have a genuine real group of friends. That’s something that bothers me, I think, just how inauthentic that can be. I don’t think that life is something I would enjoy to be around. I think it would drive me bonkers.
That’s probably the biggest thing. There’s not a lot of vulnerability. It’s very much about smiles, your best self, not talking about your flaws.