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The Very Definition of Niche

Hodinkee, the niche media organization covering watches, has launched a podcast. What does this tell us about the strategic value of expanding into on-demand audio?

I’m not particularly into watches, but I’ve long been fascinated by Hodinkee, a spiffy online magazine specifically dedicated to covering the world of watches. You can probably guess why I’m bringing the site up in today’s newsletter: yep, the site has launched a podcast, and nope, it won’t be the last digital media entity to do so.

Why would it be?

On the face of it, there’s not much about the podcast that suggests anything especially out of the ordinary: it’s called Hodinkee Radio, it’s a weekly interview show, and it comes with the proposition that “it’s not just a podcast about watches, it’s a podcast about people.” A truly prototypical pitch construction, that.

But I find myself interested in Hodinkee Radio, because Hodinkee is pure niche. Which is to say, it serves a self-selecting and intense audience: far from just being a trade publication for the watch industry — industry of horology? whatever — it’s a media concern that’s particularly honed in on serving obsessives. With something like Hodinkee, we’re really talking about a base of consumers with rampant and unyielding hunger.

As such, one would imagine it would be theoretically difficult to “over-serve” that type of audience base. If I was the sort of person who was really into watches — poring over auction details, discussing technical aspects and design innovations, spotlighting celebrity interactions, and so on, as Hodinkee’s various properties have been doing well over the past few years — there really may well be no limit to my hunger for more information or material on the subject. Indeed, I feel this in my own habits within my relationship to basketball: there is no article too badly written, no NBA player podcast too poorly produced, for me to gleefully pick it up and shove into my brain. Obsession, or perhaps a version of love, does strange things to a person.

(Another side note: I suspect the construct of obsession is one that can be somewhat applied to national media consumption trends that we’ve been witnessing since the top of the long, hellish run-up to the 2016 presidential election. If, prior to that moment, being a political junkie was a descriptor for certain kind of nerdery, we now occupy a cultural space where that level of obsession has become mainstream behavior. This, I think, was what the Trump bump was showing us.)

From this perspective, the relatively straightforward nature of Hodinkee Radio — every episode features an interview with some sort of celebrity, ostensibly talking about watches — would work presumably well in terms of helping the site to continue doing what it’s always been doing. (Not unlike its YouTube channel.) In this, the podcast seems to have a goal of deepening engagement: you’re simply giving watch obsessives more stuff to ingest. (A more charitable view: you’re now capturing their attention, and feeding their needs, in the moments of their day when they can’t look at a screen.)

But what if the point of a podcast expansion was to broaden the watch publication’s audience base? One of the more interesting narratives around the website is the cavernous gender split among its audience base: in a New York Times’ write-up from January 2017, the site’s readership is a striking 93% male. That gender breakdown is suggested to be linked to the very obsessive quality that Hodinkee effectively serves; in that same piece, the site’s only female editor, Cara Barrett, delivers the following theory by way of explanation:

It’s camaraderie. It’s like guys who are obsessed with “Star Wars.” They find someone else who is obsessed with “Star Wars,” and they just want to talk about it forever. The short answer is that boys like toys, and they’re going to obsess over them for hours.

I find that link between gender and obsession, particularly as a mean to understand the success of a niche operation like Hodinkee, super compelling. I’m still working through whether I fully buy into the theory, but it does make me wonder about the implications of that construct on arguments that view emerging platforms as means to access new audiences. Often times, when you build something for a new platform, you often become more of yourself.

(Then again, watching various media companies — including the Washington Post — build stuff for Twitch has been endlessly fascinating… and endlessly weird. Okay, I admit, I fuckin’ love it.)

(Yeah, I know I didn’t really land this column. I’m just working through some ideas.)