All EarsJune 24, 2022
I’ve made my living communicating. The first 20 years of my career, I rented my brain to Fortune 500 CEOs looking for guidance on branding or strategy. Just as a hit television show is a cocktail of production values and storytelling, a good consultant brings the peanut butter and chocolate of data-driven insight and storytelling together. The ideas and data are nothing unless you can articulate them in a compelling manner.
I didn’t hate consulting, but I didn’t love it. That’s fine — “do what you love” is bullshit. I did it because I was good at it. I spent most of my time on the road, unable to form or maintain enduring relationships, and it was fucking exhausting. Yes, it provided economic security for me and my family, which was (and should have been) my goal … full stop. But I spent the better part of two decades helping companies sell people stuff they didn’t need, and it felt increasingly meaningless. Actually, it felt like nothing … like it didn’t happen.
The Relentless Pursuit of Greatness
Within five or six years all I could think about was selling the firms I’d founded that helped other businesses sell stuff. The sales of Prophet and L2 provided economic security and blessed me with a new task — to be great, really great … at something. So I turned to teaching, and in 2002 I joined the faculty of NYU. Since then, more than 6,000 students have taken my courses. It’s been hugely rewarding, and, at the core, I consider myself a teacher. A very good teacher … but not a great one.
Despite clocking Cs in my high school and college English courses, sheer practice has improved my writing. First as a consultant, ghostwriting letters and press releases worth (optimistically) $1,200/hour. Since 2017, I’ve published a book about every 18 months (coming this fall). Good books, but still … real greatness eludes me. TV? Hands down my worst medium. I’m the Covid-19 of the idiot box, infecting and sometimes killing weak networks — Vice, Bloomberg Quicktake and CNN+. What network goes down next? Just look for my face.
The first podcast I listened to I was on. Five years ago, Kara Swisher invited me on Recode to discuss my book The Four. A few weeks later she called and said the episode was the podcast’s most downloaded. She also said that stat was likely a reporting error and asked if I’d come back on the show to validate/nullify her thesis. (The previous sentence sums up our relationship.) So I did and … similar downloads. The rest is podcast history. (Note: Not a historian.) We now get more than 2 million downloads each month, and every episode has more listeners than any CNBC show has viewers. I love podcasting. Like sex, it’s a chance to be who you really are.
We soon expanded to twice a week, and I launched the Prof G Pod, which is more market-focused but also delves into the softer stuff (e.g., how to be a better man). So, another medium, in search of my greatness. Again, I feel as if I could be great here. But I felt this way about consulting, teaching, writing, and TV. We’ll see.
The Medium Is the Message
When I’m out in public, I can tell which media channel is the catalyst for someone approaching me. The bro-approach (i.e., “Yo Dawg”) is made by fans of our videos. Someone who wants to engage in a sober, analytical discussion about the dynamics of streaming or the harms of social media reads the newsletter or my books. But someone who approaches me as if we’re good friends listens to the podcast. It’s similar to running into an old acquaintance you really liked, and who really liked you … but you never had the chance to become good friends. The goodwill is evident. This now happens several times a week.
And. It’s. Wonderful.
Audio is our oldest mass broadcast medium, and it defined popular culture in the first half of the 20th century. By 1938, 4 out of every 5 U.S. homes had a radio, and nearly 700 stations were broadcasting news, music, sports, game shows, drama and comedy stories, variety hours, and more. TV put radio in the corner in the mid-20th century, but audio is registering a second golden age thanks to digital distribution and mobile listening.
When the pandemic shut down driving commutes, analysts predicted podcasts would be a casualty. But the opposite happened. During the loneliest era in our society’s history, people craved the contact only audio can provide. Podcasting became the fastest growing sector of any U.S. media category, with revenue increasing 72% between 2020 and 2021.
Podcasts are attractive to advertisers in part because of the rise of the host-read. When the podcast host moves from the show’s content to reading the ads, it hacks our filters in a way that would require world-class creatives in another medium. Also, podcasting is affordable. The collision of audio, streaming, and mobile offers low costs for creators and consumers — I can record my podcast from anywhere, my guests can call in from anywhere, and you can listen to it … anywhere.
Admittedly, podcasting’s ad revenue growth is off a small base — its $1.4 billion is a rounding error compared to the $78 billion generated by search. But the industry’s ad revenue doesn’t reflect its cultural importance or its growth potential. The low barriers to entry have resulted in a stampede of more than 4 million podcasts (there are fewer than 1 million television shows). Forty-one percent of Americans report listening to a podcast in the past month. And the offering is robust: The breakout star of the NBA Finals wasn’t a player, but a player’s podcast; the highest-paid female podcaster ($60 million) is a former magazine ad sales rep who started her show also having never listened to a podcast; and the 20th-most-popular podcast on Spotify is about neuroscience. Podcasting, unlike other mediums, covers the whole political spectrum, offering a home to all kinds of listeners: Ben Shapiro has a top-10 podcast, and the socialists of Chapo Trap House clear $2 million per year on Patreon.
Podcasting is also a more convenient medium than any visual format. It doesn’t require our full attention, so more of our day is available to podcasters. It’s not as easy to organize or sift through as print, but it’s far easier to access than video. We may be in a golden age of television, but the average household spends more than 7 minutes a day deciding what to watch on their streaming platforms. If someone recommends a TV show, we must find out what platform it’s on, locate the app, track down the password, and then have an uninterrupted hour of screen time. In contrast, a podcast is always a few clicks away. Ease of discovery enables the proliferation of new voices.
Capitalism being what it is, big players have been trying to turn the wide-open podcasting model into a walled garden of unearned margin, but these efforts have borne little fruit. Luminary launched with fanfare in 2018, but its only accomplishment is burning through $100 million in venture funding. Spotify has more money to burn, but so far, its bonfire has produced less heat (value) than most would have expected from a company that already distilled and organized an entire medium. “Exclusive” podcasts from Kim Kardashian, Meghan and Harry, and a slew of other celebrities and content houses have been headfakes.
Thanks to the good people at Athletic Greens, LinkedIn Jobs, ZipRecruiter, and other advertisers, the Prof G Pod and Pivot are among the 1% of podcasts making good money. And I enjoy it. The most rewarding medium I work in is books, but they’re also by far the most work. (A decent metaphor for life.) Television has been fun and ego-boosting, but it’s cumbersome and feels increasingly like empty calories. Every minute of video we put on the stream at CNN+ took two hours of work from a dozen other people. Also, I’ve got a face for podcasting. Pods aren’t easy, but the ROI is greater.
So … I’m leaning in. We recently launched an audio version of this newsletter, read by my friend George Hahn. Next we’re launching Prof G Markets, a podcast focused on capital markets. That will initially run once a week, but the inherent flexibility of podcasting allows us to evolve quickly; if the listenership is there, the plan is to increase the frequency. Ultimately, I see our competition not as other podcasts, but CNBC. Around 150,000 viewers are tuned into CNBC at any one time, and it’s supposedly the wealthiest viewership cohort in television. Yet the product hasn’t changed in 25 years — it’s still women in sleeveless dresses and guys in boxy suits talking fast while numbers swim past. We’ll see.
Hearing Your Life
We are moving to London. This has been more emotional than I’d anticipated. I’m not worried about leaving friends, the country I love, or a lifestyle that will be impossible to best. The cause of the sad hollowness that made me emotional when discussing higher ed with 250 Charles Schwab execs yesterday? We’re leaving the house my boys grew up in. I have been good about pictures, and better with video, but what I’m really grateful for … is the audio. My kids laughing, arguing with each other (constantly), and the distinct octave they reach when playing with the dogs.
Research shows hearing is the last sense to go as we die. The voice of a loved one initiates brain activity that would otherwise be inoperative during our final moments. Atheism is a huge source of comfort for me, knowing this is “it” and not a dress rehearsal. I know, and am planning, for my end. If that sounds macabre, it’s not. It will be glorious, and I have the people, meds, and media curated. I will be surrounded by emotion and love. I will live my life again, as I will hear it.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Problem-solving is the most important skill you can master at work, but almost no one teaches it. Except us — sign up to learn from Bain partner Jennie Tung this July.