If one were to start a podcast today, what subject matter should they choose to increase their chance of success?  Certainly, with over 400,000 podcast titles in existence and 1,000 more being added weekly, the world isn’t craving another comedy or sports podcast.  Or is it?

It is hard to determine whether we are in the first inning of podcasting, or at “peak” audio with a cornucopia of choice including AM/FM radio, satellite, owned music, streaming, and of course podcasts. The impediments of discovery and limits of personal time are the enemies of so much choice.  

The impediments of discovery and limits of personal time are the enemies of so much choice.  

We know from history, a myriad of factors lead to success in content - execution and timing top the list. We also know that certain content genres tend to perform better than others.  Just look at TV and its ability to constantly reinvent medical drama shows over the years from Marcus Welby, M.D. to Grey's Anatomy.  Some story areas are durable and rich.

When we approached the idea of delving in and examining podcast content by genre, we had no ideology other than being pretty sure no one ever needs another podcast about podcasts – rather we simply wanted to see what is currently “printing” in podcasting as a matter of interest and general direction. 

We confined ourselves to Apple’s 16 major podcast categories as delineated in iTunes.  Some are pretty logical and clear, while others are a bit of a hodge-podge.  None-the-less, it is a good place to start.

We took a look at the Top 200 podcast chart from iTunes on a random day in October to see what categories dominate and in what proportion.

We took a look at the Top 200 podcast chart from iTunes on a random day in October to see what categories dominate and in what proportion.

The Top 200 Shows on Apples iTunes podcast chart one day in October

The Top 200 Shows on Apples iTunes podcast chart one day in October

Here are some of the findings:   

  • Two-thirds (67%) of the top podcasts come from just four categories – Society & Culture, News & Politics, Comedy and Sports. 
  • The most (25%), is driven by just one category - Society & Culture.  It is a wide-ranging category with everything from Dan Carlin’s hardcore history to S-Town, Dirty John and Freakonomics radio.  In fact, Society & Culture is the second largest category with over 48,000 titles.
  • News & Politics and Comedy are neck and neck – 34 and 32 titles respectively in the Top 200.  We were a bit surprised at relatively how few entries are in News & Politics, especially in this rich political cycle.  News & Politics has 18,000 titles ranking it 11th of the 16 major categories. Success in this category is probably linked to the early dominance of public radio and the cost barrier of producing news related content. Comedy, as a category description, is more straight forward and includes titles such as Joe Rogan, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, Marc Maron's WTF, etc. 
  • Sports comes in 4th among the top 200 (23 titles) – Barstool Sports, 30 for 30 from ESPN, The Ringer, Steve Austin and others lead the way.  Sports is the 9th most popular category in terms of titles.  

None of this is a perfect science, but directionally, it is most interesting. We will come back to it with future analytics slicing the pie more finely by adding sub-genres such as crime dramas.  There seems to be an insatiable appetite for murder in podcasting.

This analysis also reveals opportunity not yet realized.  For example, Games & Hobbies, with over 20,000 entries is currently a no-show in the top 200 - but it could be big if the right content were to come along.  Gaming is giant on smartphone apps and YouTube. 

Flanking and originality must be part of the formula going forward. 

There is the famous last-minute decision at CBS-TV, where a key producer was sent by CEO Les Moonves to watch two crime shows after the top programming executives were having difficulty choosing a final show for prime time. One was a typical detective show starring Tony Danza, the other, a science-based crime show called CSI.  After viewing the pilots for both, the producer said he had seen the Danza show "a million times before," but had never seen a show like CSI.  Apparently, that sentiment was shared by millions of viewers after CBS execs chose CSI. The program instantly became TV's number one show in 2004.  

The inverse argument can also be made – fish where the fish are.  In which case, content producers should work on development in hot sectors and create a value proposition in a proven vertical.

Quick thoughts from our analytics:

We know from decades of creating and advising on audio content development and marketing:

  • Choice kills, sameness kills and being average kills - This is especially true in a sea of podcasts.  
  • Duplicating content is generally a flawed strategy - Flank with unique content in underserved areas 
  • Different can be good - Originality must be part of the formula going forward. 

Special thanks to "data monster" Chadd Hollowed.  More to come. 

  

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