How Longtime Podcasts Keep the Hits Coming

Intelligence Squared Photo by Samuel Lahoz
Intelligence Squared Photo by Samuel Lahoz

There’s a ton of advice out there for start-ups, but seasoned shows face their own challenges as the industry expands.

The mainstream embrace of podcasts can be both a boon and a hindrance to long-running shows that have fought hard to establish themselves as big fish in a once-niche space. Granted, the biggest names will place in the top performing charts, but if a show is too specific for a mass audience or hasn’t achieved Joe Rogan or My Favorite Murder numbers after a few years, veteran broadcasters could be at a loss to break through a second or third time.

“I think the biggest challenge is growing when you’re already big. And finding new listeners when there are so many more shows out there,” says Stephen Dubner, creator and host of Freakonomics Radio, in an email. “ … as with every other human endeavor in history, it does appear there’s a novelty premium.”

Dubner entered podcasting in 2010 shortly after releasing his second Freakonomics book with economist Steven Levitt. Though he had a hit brand to bank on, he embarked on podcasting without expecting to still be on the air nearly a decade later.

“I started the show on a lark," Dubner says. "We were between books and I was a little bit bored, thinking it might be fun to do something collaborative. I’ve always liked radio, and thought podcasting presented a much more maker-friendly distribution model. I had no idea podcasting would become a thing the way it has, so I’m extraordinarily grateful to have had such lucky timing.”

Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics Photo by Audrey Bernstein
Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics Photo by Audrey Bernstein

Focus on quality, not quantity

What’s kept Dubner going is an insatiable curiosity and commitment to authenticity. Today’s shows are a far cry from the first Freakonomics Radio episodes, which were modeled on blog posts, that were in turn extensions of Dubner’s writing style. Dubner’s experiments with audio storytelling techniques led him to develop new narrative structures which gave the podcast its own distinct voice apart from the Freakonomics book series.
“I’d argue that our show now is as diverse as it’s ever been in terms of topic, approach, depth of idea, from week to week, ranging from two-ways [interviews] with institutional leaders to deep dives on an everyday topic,” Dubner says.

He also says he’s comfortable with the amount of listeners the show now attracts. At this point, he’s more concerned with consistency than he is growth. “I’m not sure there are another 1, 2, or 5 million people out there who’d really want what we’re making, so you'd run the risk of gaining listeners who aren’t a good fit,” he notes by way of explaining why a dramatic boost in downloads isn't his goal. Rather, Dubner uses his own interest in potential story ideas as a barometer to judge the worthiness of topics.

“I am easily bored, so the minute I start feeling we’re making an episode that won’t teach us anything new, I trash it and start on something else,” he says. “The whole point, to me, of writing, journalism, podcasting, whatever is to explore new ideas and find out new and interesting stuff. I figure that if I’m bored, the audience will be too.”

Don't fix it unless it's broken

Skeptoid occupies a similar space as Freakonomics, using scientific principles to make sense of everyday life, and has run for even longer. It eschews the interview format in favor of a concise synthesis of academic writing on any given topic. The show premiered in October 2006, and 700 episodes later its structure is almost unchanged. Rather than feeling pressured to evolve, creator Brian Dunning believes his show’s rigidity is the key to its longevity.

“One of the original creative choices made in 2006 has proven to be the best, and that's to have a short-format, single-subject, all-content show. It's 12 to 15 minutes of thoroughly researched, tightly scripted, original content. No chitchat or downtime,” Dunning says via email. Even guest hosts hewed close to the blueprint during a period when Dunning was away from hosting duties. With Dunning now returned, and the show according to him, maintaining strong, consistent numbers, there are no plans to change course as it enters its 14th year.

Bryan Dunning of Skeptoid Photo by Jeff Kennedy
Bryan Dunning of Skeptoid Photo by Jeff Kennedy

Adapting to flourish

Not all tenured shows have remained unchanged since their debut. Connor Curfman, creative and marketing strategist for Intelligence Squared U.S. says the show has remixed the format many times over the years in a bid to create potent podcast magic. The program is an extension of a UK-based forum that applies rigorous debate-style format to unpack contentious current events. Figures provided by the show reveal a steady uptick in audience growth.

Amid all that growth was a barrage of tinkering. The show first began 13 years ago with six total panelists, three apiece representing opposing viewpoints. The total was whittled down to four in the interest of streamlining conversation, and opening remarks were clipped to allow for more fireworks during the panel back-and-forth and audience question portion. The publishing frequency was tweaked as well. When Intelligence Squared U.S. began, it adhered to a traditional media format, with seasons broken up by long periods without any new content. The schedule has since been tailored to accommodate new content on a bi-weekly basis. Finally, the producers have experimented with different types of debates. Whereas many episodes are designed to produce a clear winner for a particular issue, the introduction of an Unresolved format shakes up convention by bringing in five panelists from across the political spectrum to make predictions on topics like America’s economic outlook. Curfman says the alteration generated loads of positive feedback, and even netted the program a Telly Award for political commentary.

“For shows like ours that have been around for a minute, we have to remind ourselves to stay diligent about not ever getting too comfortable with every detail of the show, from the formatting, to audio cues, music, imagery, and copy. It’s really about always trying to optimize as much as possible,” Curfman says in an email. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s gotten harder to capture attention, but it has forced us to be more mindful in how we can innovate and make adjustments to the show to ensure its longevity.”

Riding the wave

Finally, the surge in popularity of podcasting has caused some previously shuttered shows to attempt comebacks. Actor, musician, and comedian Dave Hill—who's appeared on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Inside Amy Schumer, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and wrote and performs the theme song to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver—initially hosted a show called Dave Hill's Podcasting Incident starting in 2010. Hill shelved the show in 2014 in favor of starting a live radio program, but in 2018, he revived his podcast.

The new version includes some segments Hill honed on his radio show, but also embraces the conversational, stream-of-consciousness flow of unscripted talk-show pods. Hill admits his show is not for everyone, comparing it to Marmite (“the arguably disgusting English toast condiment that I happen to enjoy,” in Hill's words). But the feedback has been encouraging enough for him to launch two additional, topic-driven podcasts, History Fluffer and So … You’re Canadian.

“Going back to the Marmite comparison, people tend to either be really into what I do or not get it at all. I’m totally fine with that," Hill says in an email. "It would be cool to have huge mainstream success or a massive following or whatever, but I’m ultimately into doing stuff first and foremost, the ‘process’ as it were. And I’ve been lucky enough to make my living at the stuff I like doing for a long time now. So as long as there’s gas in the tank both figuratively and literally, I’m good."

Long-running shows either need to be laser-focused on what they excel at or know where room for improvement lies and employ creative solutions. True, they might never get another shot to be the debut darling of the moment, but publicity isn’t everything. Reply All doesn’t often break news outside of podcast media. Yet, it’s been one of Gimlet’s top shows since 2016 and its audience has expanded consistently since then even as other shows like Slow Burn have gone viral. Podcasting now could be a phenomenon where a rising tide lifts all boats, and even legacy podcasts can continue to grow their audiences through the sheer momentum of the medium provided they maintain the same unique voice that first turned heads.

–Zach Brooke