What makes a popular podcast? So far, there seems to be no single factor to guarantee success. However, if one examines the top-10 podcasts from the past year and currently (as measured in streams and downloads from Apple iTunes) certain qualities do seem to emerge as common to the most successful ones. It took television, radio, recorded music, and the internet 10-20 years apiece to hit their strides; with the podcast now entering its second decade in 2016, some common tropes and practices have emerged. In some ways, the top podcasts at iTunes are more similar than dissimilar.
Perhaps the greatest way to make your podcast a top-tier success is to have an accompanying radio show. National Public Radio hosts no fewer than half of these podcasts as radio shows, which creates an audience for the programs; this in turn leads to more downloads as people listen to the programs on their own schedule. Being a celebrity or having name recognition before launching the podcast also seems to help (but is no guarantee of success). In all cases, the podcasts are of a professional nature: sound is mixed properly, material is researched and prepared, post-production touches have been added, and rigid schedules are adhered to.
One interesting thing the chart reveals is the type of content that is popular. All of these podcasts place an emphasis on good old-fashioned storytelling. The subject matter of eight of these podcasts is related in one way or another to science or history, two subjects one might not expect Americans to be interested in. None of the top-10 podcasts could even remotely be considered a comedy or sports program. So if you want to hit the podcast big time, be sure tell stories about real things people care about. Comedy and sports podcasts are a dime a dozen, and when done poorly, nobody will take the time to listen.
Perhaps one of the big misconceptions about podcasts is that anyone can do one. Anyone can record a bit of audio and upload it to the web. However, to make a podcast that people will actually bother downloading or streaming requires a level of commitment that few amateurs are willing to muster; a good podcast, like hosting a radio or TV show, is a full-time job. It can be done, but as with any creative endeavor, the more work you put into it, the better the odds are that it will be worth hearing.
The 10 most popular podcasts on iTunes (as of February 29, 2016)
This is a quasi-spinoff of This American Life, put together by the same creative team. The narrator is journalist Sarah Koenig. Serial follows one story over the course of a whole season, rather than different stories each week. The result is an intimate level of detail seldom hard even on NPR. The first season explored the 1999 murder of a high schooler in Baltimore, examining the incident through the work of law enforcement, the stories of the families involved, and even interviews with the murderers.
This American Life is a popular weekly radio program in which each installment presents a central theme and several stories related to it. It is the genesis of the Showtime TV program of the same name. The stories are frequently about ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. More than five individual stories from the program are currently under development as films.
Hosted by Guy Raz, the TED Radio Hour is yet another NPR mainstay. This program features a look at ideas: ideas that have resulted in inventions, new approaches to old problems, and new ways of thinking and creating. The talks are often given by top persons in their fields but also by average people with a particularly fresh idea. The shows are also divided into themes, with each talk a different angle on the theme.
Myths and Legends is a podcast in which host Jason Weiser tells stories that have shaped cultures throughout history. These are frequently popular myths and legends that are familiar to many listeners, but the podcast delves into their often surprising origins. Often the same basic legend or myth is explored through multiple versions that exist in differering cultures.
Host Mike Rowe takes the listener through stories familiar people and events, ranging from pop-culture to history to politics, highlighting surprising twists or unusual and little-known facts about the subject. The emphasis is on storytelling, and generally he stories are kept relatively short. Advertised as “short mysteries for the curious mind with a short attention span.”
Science for the layman, Stuff You Should Know is the official podcast of How Stuff Works. Stuff You Should Know takes complex but familiar phenomena, and breaks it down into simple, easy-to-understand concepts. However, the show does not insult its audience by dumbing things down, it presents its information with off-beat and often humorous authorities on the topic.
Hosted by Rose Eveleth, Flash Forward is a future-themed podcast that explores real-life examples of what to expect in both the near future or the distant future. Each episode examines a potential future example, such as a new ice age or antibiotics losing efficacy, and examines how it would impact human lives, individually and as a species.
Another radio program familiar to NPR listeners, Radiolab is an irreverent but also serious look at some of the biggest questions facing us all. Each podcast has a particular theme like infinity, or fears, or color, or time. These are then explored from several different angles with different stories. The show is also heard on over 500 local radio stations in the U.S.
Another How Stuff Works spinoff, this podcast focuses on the little-known or forgotten footnotes to history. Dogs in war, the “radium girls”, and Navajo code talkers are some of the subject matter the show has explored in depth. The focus is on history that not many know about, but which helps us understand why things are as they are today.
99% Invisible examines ordinary objects we encounter on a daily basis, things we see so often they often become invisible to us. It also looks at things that were once ubiquitous in history, but have now vanished. Recent topics have included pedestrian signals, urban gardens, and civic flag designs.