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The Left Right Game

Speaking as a Wesleyan grad who majored in something that literally has the word “social” in the name, it’s really weird timing to be writing about a genre that includes Ben Shapiro. But whatever, this column has been a few weeks in the making, so let’s just roll with it.

I’d like to begin by articulating an assumption I know I’m not alone in holding: for a good stretch of its existence, podcasting has often come across as a distinctly liberal-leaning media space.

There are a number of reasons for this. Some of it has to do with the prominent successes that public radio and various journalistic organizations — typically thought about as liberal institutions, unfairly and otherwise — have historically had crossing over into the medium. Part of this might also have to do with the head-turning emergence of successful left-leaning and leftist presences that have used open podcasting as a foundation for their media businesses, as in the case of Crooked Media and the cluster of pods loosely known as the Dirtbag Left. I’m sure there are other reasons of note, but the point is, it’s an impression that has solidified into an informal identity, one that has persisted for a good while.

Now, you can attack this historical assumption from a few directions. Perhaps the biggest one lies in the fact that you could simply point to the presence of Joe Rogan and Dan Carlin — both of whom possess politics that can be fairly hard to describe, but typically run counter to the dominant strings of liberal politics — as being prominent figureheads of the medium dating far back to its earlier pre-Serial era. But for the most part, the interpretation of podcasting being distinctly liberal-leaning is more true than not, especially if you think about the majority of the successes that have broken through from within the medium over the past decade or so.

At any rate, while that reading may have held historically, we seem to be reaching a point where that interpretation may no longer necessarily stand.

This case begins with a tenuous but nevertheless significant data point. If you were to scan the Apple Podcast charts today, you’d find that a tremendous proportion of the shows occupying the Top 200 spots are explicitly right-wing podcasts. Here’s a non-comprehensive list, as of Monday evening: The Dan Bongino Show, The Ben Shapiro, The Mark Levin Podcast, The Charlie Kirk Show, The Candace Owens Show, The Glenn Beck Program, Louder with Crowder, The Daily Wire’s Enough, The Sean Hannity Show, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The Michael Knowles Show, The Rubin Report, and whatever that Bill O’Reilly podcast is called. That accounting doesn’t even include shows by sitting Republican politicians, like Verdict with Ted Cruz and Hold These Truths with Dan Crenshaw, which are technically counterparts in the politician pod trend I wrote about a few weeks ago.

(Additionally, you could theoretically sort the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” libertarian types into this mix: the Joe Rogans and Jordan Petersons and so on. But I’m inclined to bracket them out as a separate species of show, since they collectively make up a significantly different kind of political phenomenon at this point in time.)

Anyway, this data point is tenuous because it’s always important to point out the deep imperfections of using the Apple Podcast charts as a representation of the podcast ecosystem. As we’ve banged the drum several times before, performance on the Apple Podcast charts shouldn’t be read as an indicator of a given show’s listenership relative to each other, but as a kind of “heat” indicator that prizes what some in the business call “subscriber velocity” — that is, the novel engagements that a podcast experiences on the platform. (There’s a way you can think about the charts as being somewhat similar to YouTube and social media platforms, in the sense that they reward fresh engagement as the leading metric. In any case, like many algorithmically-driven artifacts, how Apple determines placement on its podcast charts is largely a black box affair, subject to long and voluminous debate.) Put simply, a show can rank highly on the Apple Podcast charts across a considerable number of weeks but ultimately reaches fewer people compared to a show that’s larger and older but is currently sitting somewhere in the basement of the charts.

It’s also worth noting that the Apple Podcast chart is also vulnerable to scam campaigns, in that it’s possible for certain bad actors to engage in pay-for-placements schemes where automated scripts are used to simulate engagement with specific podcasts at high volumes. Such schemes are meant to help drive newer shows up the charts, where their high placement gets them exponentially greater visibility, which in turns leads them to potentially generate organic growth. (We ran an experiment to illustrate such a bot campaign a few years ago.)

All of this is really wonky discussion, I know, but I’m setting all this foundation down to push the point: while the Apple Podcast charts shouldn’t be taken at their word, I think the sheer volume and consistency of right-wing shows that currently populates the charts tells us something quite real. Furthermore, according to data made available by Chartable, a podcast analytics and attribution company that tracks Apple Podcast chart positions as part of its services, some of those shows have been charting effectively for the past two years or so. An even smaller number has been charting effectively since the start of the Trump presidency.

Even more curious, digging through the data a little further, is the fact that many of these shows have noticeably improved their chart standings over the past few months, and significantly so in the weeks since Election Day. (The fine folks at Chartable also noted that there doesn’t seem to be any red flags suggesting that paid-for-placements scams were involved in the chart performance of these shows.)

Here are three examples to illustrate the finding. The Mark Levin Show has spent much of the past year charting between the 70-100 and 100-150 range, depending on the month. About a week after Election Day, the show’s positioning markedly improved, and it currently hovers fairly consistently around tenth spot. The Ben Shapiro Show, which started out as a podcast before being simultaneously repackaged as a radio broadcast in 2018, has always charted fairly well, rarely dropping below the tenth spot throughout 2020. Over the past few months, it’s averaged placements around the 4-7 spot. Meanwhile, The Dan Bongino Show, which features a host that’s become confoundingly prominent enough on digital spheres to warrant his own inquiring New York Times profile by Kevin Roose, largely fluttered back and forth within the 20-40 spots for much of the year. Since Election Day, however, the podcast broke into the top ten spots, and currently averages at the top two spots.

Again, performance on the Apple Podcast charts is a wildly imperfect metric, and it shouldn’t be taken as materially equivalent to, say, box office returns or the New York Times Best Seller List. (Though, my understanding is that the latter is also controversial in some circles.) Nevertheless, the Apple Podcast charts is one of the most visible and powerful real estates in all podcasting, and the consistency of their chart placements does represent the existence of a trend. Placement is power, and I believe that, very quietly and then seemingly all at once, right-wing podcasts have carved out a strong presence in the ecosystem.

So, I picked The Mark Levin Show, The Ben Shapiro Show, and The Dan Bongino Show as representative examples for another reason: all three podcasts are repped for sales and distribution by Westwood One, the Cumulus Media-owned radio group that’s been working to build out a podcast business over the past few years. (Further context for more specificity: The Ben Shapiro Show is officially listed as being distributed by The Daily Wire, but The Daily Wire is repped for sales by Westwood One.)

You can find network-wide download numbers for Westwood One’s portfolio on the Podtrac rankers, which, similarly, should be understood as imperfect representations of the podcast space themselves. (See here and here.) But they do give us a decent shot at some understanding of reach. The numbers for Westwood One’s portfolio are fairly hard to parse out: it’s officially listed at reaching 6,236,000 unique monthly US listeners through its whopping 132 show portfolio. Somewhere in that spread is The Dan Bongino Show and The Mark Levin Show. However, The Daily Wire is spun out as its own publisher in the ranker, and the official number there is objectively sizable: the network is said to reach 5,546,000 unique monthly listeners off only five shows, one of which is, of course, The Ben Shapiro Show. It’s safe to assume, then, that The Ben Shapiro Show reaches well above a million unique US monthly listeners a month at the very least.

Let’s now turn to the explanatory question: how did these right-wing shows break through the podcast ecosystem? Any meaningful answer requires serious appraisal of multiple overlapping factors, but my impression is that it can largely be pegged to two things. Firstly, these shows work with insane volume. They often publish new episodes every weekday, occasionally on the weekends, and they rarely miss beat. Secondly, I think a big, big part of this has to do with how right-wing podcasting nowadays seems purposefully integrated with the broader right-wing infrastructures, and are themselves individual assets of much larger multi-platform presences. This notion was pushed forward prominently in a conversation I had recently with a senior figure at Westwood One, who pointed to the way someone like Dan Bongino consistently shepherds attention between his multiple media outputs, from his broadcast radio show to his social media feeds to his podcasts to his various media appearances. It’s an aggressive flood the zone approach, where gains from each individual piece directly pipes into supporting another. This approach extends down the line: in 2018, Westwood One started repackaging The Ben Shapiro Show for broadcast radio distribution, while The Mark Levin Show podcast is a repackage of a broadcast radio program.

There is also the matter of how the content itself tends to simply be fuel for fiery responses, amplified and in service to a charged polarized environment, like a snake that eats its tail to only grow eternally fatter. During that conversation, I also took the opportunity to ask about the company’s stance on the speech of the shows it represents. After all, in the wake of the elections, The Dan Bongino Show was hyperactive in promoting several baseless allegations and debunked conspiracy theories claiming election fraud. The response was a minor dodge. “We have a very, very strong policy on content,” came the reply. “We feel strongly that we have the ability to uphold the truth.”

Ultimately, this feels like an expression of the inevitable endgame for all emergent technologies. Something new comes around, catches fire, attention, and then investment, eventually leading to a place where the old guard comes in and synthesizes the whole thing. In this case, it’s old right-wing talk radio making its way into new podcasting, finding new blood as a foothold, building a bridge between the two sides. We’ve seen it with news organizations like the New York Times and NPR, and so it’s unsurprising that we’re seeing it with ever-present conservative talk radio. One wonders what this foretells for the explicitly left-leaning types — what would be the synthesis for Crooked Media?