In early 2007, at a small editor’s lunch on the 34th floor at Time Magazine’s office in Rockefeller Center, a somewhat fumbling Steve Jobs walked in, beltless, with the future in his hand. He couldn’t type well on the thing, and was harried by questions about some kind of low-level stock scandal as he picked at his salad, but the not-yet-launched iPhone was so full of history-warping features that Jobs barely even mentioned what would later become a multibillion-dollar smartphone-fueled industry: podcasting.
I was there in that room, a young editor who probably had ranch dressing on his cheek, asking Jobs the same asinine questions about backdated options, totally blind to the real meaning of the moment. Zero inkling that now, a dozen years later, the once-great Time Magazine would have been chopped up and sold and rescued by Salesforce’s CEO and that I would be long gone, enthusiastically traveling the world with a bottle of whisky and two microphones, podcasting—yes, podcasting—from Thailand to Kenya to LA to Tokyo.
What do I love about podcasting? The same things that marketers should love.
It’s intimate: There is no escaping this. Podcasts are literally a whisper in your ear. Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones are everywhere, they are getting better all the time. Podcasters are in your mind, far nearer to you than you’d let any close-talker get. This may be the one tech in media that actually builds trust because of the experience.
The listener is locked in: Phone calls are down TK%. There is little audio to break into the podcast experience. We have a rule that we are allowed to suck, but just not for more than a minute. That’s how much sustained sucking it would take for someone to put down the dish they’re washing, dry their hands, then consciously turn to another podcast. Anything less than a minute of fumbling or umm’ing and it won’t be worth it to turn us off.
It’s niche, so it can really mean something deep to someone: There are mass-appeal podcasts, but improvements in discovery mean that you can have a very specific thing you do—say, drinking alcohol and cussing and crying with people in their far-flung hometowns around the world—and an audience can find you. When they do, they will stay with you, because you are the only one who speaks to them quite like that.
And you get from that product demonstration over salad to where we are today: 90 million listeners tuned into podcasts last month. Spotify just acquired Gimlet media for $230 million—the biggest acquisition in the industry to date- signaling that this is only the beginning of the podcast content boom.
When Anthony Bourdain and I started my podcast The Trip, it actually came because of a marketer. Tiger Beer, to be specific. They walked into Roads & Kingdoms and asked if we had a podcast, and when we said no, they gave us $80,000 to make one. Of course, Tony and I knew what to do with that money: we had Dan the Automator make the theme song, hired great young producers and flew them all over the place to grab sound, got the legendary illustrator Edel Rodriguez to make the show art, and pretty soon we were broke again, but with a show that made us proud. After Tony died, Luminary—a venture-backed company making a $100 million bet on power of podcasting—took the show under its wing, made it one of its launch shows, and, well, we’ll see where it goes from here. We know that no media project lasts forever, but the underlying strengths of podcasting—the focus, the intimacy, the authenticity—those are human qualities, those are strengths, those are everlasting. Get some for you and your audience.