Podcasting in the News

How One Professor Uses Podcasts to Teach Empathy and Social Justice

Ashley Neglia/Feb 19, 2019

Necessity is often the mother of invention. For Dr. Jessica Calarco, it was motherhood itself that necessitated—or at least sparked—innovation.


Five years ago, Calarco was a new mother, often awake half the night with her infant daughter. As luck would have it, the Serial podcast was released that year. The groundbreaking, Peabody Award-winning true-crime program by public radio producer Sarah Koenig precipitated a podcasting renaissance. During one bleary-eyed night with the baby, Calarco reached for her headphones and pushed “play.” She quickly found podcasts to be both an auditory salve and a cerebral stimulant. “I burned through hundreds of hours of them over the next six months,” she says.

She wanted to encourage students to embrace human interaction—and build empathy around concepts of social justice—with the passion they seemed to reserve for the digital world.

The timing could not have been better. Calarco had been looking for a way to create more engagement with tech-savvy students in the new Introduction to Sociology course she was designing as an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington. She wanted to encourage students to embrace human interaction—and build empathy around concepts of social justice—with the passion they seemed to reserve for the digital world.

Fueled by one part inspiration and one part sleep deprivation, Calarco developed an idea that proved to be both successful and empowering.

Turning up the volume on empathy

Calarco decided to introduce students to her new love of podcasting—not for entertainment, but because it would engage them. Podcasts, she believed, would help them not only hear but deeply understand the social inequities and challenges facing communities today.

The idea felt so right to her that she built her entire Introduction to Sociology course around podcasting. “The theme of this class is ‘listen and learn,’” states her current course description. “Each week, we will use episodes of popular podcasts . . . to explore sociological theories and concepts.”

Since then, Calarco has shared an episode of This American Life to inspire discussion on the sociological imagination and ”how thinking like a sociologist means stepping outside our own bubbles.” She has introduced the effect of stratified social networks on racial inequalities in hiring, using an episode of Start Up. And she has tackled the topic of culture and food with an episode of The Sporkful, weaving in themes of cultural hegemony, ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.


How to make branded podcasts that pop

Recent standouts have given marketers a playbook for how to get users to tune in

George P. Slefo. March 06, 2019


Trader Joe’s

Does no traditional marketing

Despite its popularity, Trader Joe's does no traditional marketing and doesn't discuss internal issues with the media. Those seeking details about the inner workings of the company, however, can tune into its podcast. "Inside Trader Joe's" shares information such as how often it turns around its products, and how it decides which food items go on the shelf.

Although most marketers know the company doesn't advertise, what may come as a surprise is how popular Trader Joe's podcast is; it ranks in the top 1 percent of all podcast downloads, regardless of genre. It averages more than 35,000 downloads within the first 30 days of an episode's release, according to Libsyn, the largest paid podcast-hosting network, with clients such as Pandora, Spotify and Amazon.

An entirely different brand, Smead—which makes those manila envelopes found in nearly every office—has a podcast called "Keeping You Organized" that's been running for five years, and ranks in the top 10 percent of all podcast downloads. Meanwhile, GE's fictional show, "The Message," is regarded by many as the most successful branded podcast ever, garnering more than 8 million downloads since its release.

While each are different in terms of subject matter and format, all are branded podcasts. And although many such brand expressions fail, these are among the standouts. Each has achieved success not typically seen in the branded-content arena, providing marketers with a playbook on how to launch their own.

Defining listenership

According to Libsyn, podcasts with more than 3,400 downloads within the first 30 days of release rank in the top 10 percent, regardless of genre. To get into the top 5 percent, shows need more than 8,300 downloads in that one-month time frame.

"The ones that get it right are all doing a key thing: They're not making a 30-minute podcast that's basically a sales pitch. People want their time to be worthwhile," says Rob Walch, VP of podcaster relations at Libsyn. Garnering 500 downloads within the first month of release should also be seen as a success; Walch compares it to talking to the same amount of people at a conference. But with a podcast, "people are tuning in every week."

Keep the plugs subtle

Brands should approach podcasting like community outreach, not advertising. "Don't try to force your message; the ones that do it best are the ones that provide value," says Walch.

In Trader Joe's latest podcast episode, marketing executives Tara Miller and Matt Sloan dish out knowledge on sustainability. The hosts talk about the hazards of products such as Styrofoam and why they're bad for the environment. They also subtly plug their employer. "Refrigeration is probably one of the bigger uses of energy we have," Sloan says in the episode, before explaining how the retailer is moving away from old refrigerant chemicals to a model that pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and uses it as the coolant.

Find your voice

"Our products aren't the most exciting in the world, but our motto is to keep you organized," says John Hunt, Smead's senior manager of digital marketing and content. "Our podcast isn't about file folders. It's about organization."

The show focuses on office managers, with episodes touching on topics such as helping someone with ADHD get organized, or decluttering a home to sell it more quickly.

"If you give useful information like that, you're going to build brand loyalty," says Hunt.

Smead's most popular episode is also its most "controversial," Hunt says. In episode No. 172, Louise Kurzeka, a member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, takes issue with "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo, and the Netflix show it spawned, "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo." Her points are good," Hunt says, "but there's no one right way to get organized."

Be relatable

John Deere jumped into podcasting last year with a show called "On Life and Land." It comes 124 years after Deere debuted its print magazine, The Furrow. During the podcast, "you won't hear the words 'John Deere' mentioned more than four or five times," says David Jones, publications manager at John Deere.

In a two-part series, the show covered depression and mental illness; the suicide rate among farmers is more than double that of military veterans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I know there's often a stigma around depression as a whole, but also medication," the show's host says. "It can be troublesome to a lot of people, [who ask,] 'I don't need medication, do I?'"

John Deere's show is already getting more than 5,000 downloads per episode, Jones says. "These are 5,000 people who are spending one hour with us every two weeks," he says.

Can Anchor be the YouTube of podcasts?

And should it?

By Zachary Mack  Mar 5, 2019, 11:49am EST

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Anchor CEO Michael Mignano discusses the company’s recent acquisition by Spotify, the future of podcasting, and whether Anchor could become the “YouTube for podcasts.” The Verge’s Nilay Patel and Ashley Carman talk to Mignano about the current difficulties the podcast industry faces along with possible solutions for discovery and questioning what to do with the RSS feed.

You can listen to their discussion in its entirety on The Vergecast right now. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from the interview.

Nilay Patel: We live in a world where technology just makes it easier to create every day. That’s what The Verge covers. Then you have to distribute some stuff, which is usually very difficult, and then you have to monetize some stuff, which is usually the hardest part of all to do in any kind of scale to make any kind of business happen along the way. I think most people kind of see how digital media generally works. It becomes very easy to make a video. YouTube captures the entire distribution market. They now control monetization of video for tons and tons of people. You guys haven’t captured that yet. There’s still Apple podcasts. You’re now on Spotify, which is a huge podcast distribution platform, and you’re talking about monetization, but there are a bunch of other companies kind of floating in that ecosystem. Is YouTube your model, or is it something else entirely?

Mike Mignano: So I think the insight we had when we were building Anchor was that the distribution of podcasts and audio is actually very, very different than the distribution of video or text.

My point is that the distribution of podcasts, unlike these other platforms like Twitter and YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram, is that the distribution of podcasts is fragmented, and it’s because of RSS. So the way podcasts work now is you have an RSS feed, and then the RSS feed can be consumed by a number of different players or consumption platforms. And so I think the insight that we realized is that we don’t need to control the consumption experience to provide a ton of value to creators. We can just help make hosting and distribution really, really easy.

So create the podcast either in your studio or on your phone, tap a button, and we’ll do the heavy lifting for you to get your podcast distributed everywhere. We’ll make the RSS feed. We’ll get it up on Apple Podcasts for you. We’ll get it up on Spotify for you. We’ll get it up on Overcast or whatever app your audience might be listening on. I think that has always been the thing that creators really wanted, especially new podcast creators. They just want to be heard. They want to be able to build their audience. And so if you can bridge that gap for them and make it easy to reach their listeners wherever they are, you’re doing a huge service to them. So for us, it’s been about solving that problem and getting the audio to everywhere people are listening.

I can do the YouTube comparison of you all day because it’s super easy. But YouTube doesn’t make Premiere. They don’t make iMovie. There’s a gap there.

Right, but there’s a gap there in audio that doesn’t exist in video and photos probably because of the devices. These devices have these baked-in cameras. Photo-taking is a very natural part of the experience when you get a smartphone. Audio hasn’t gotten there yet. There’s all this friction in between having an idea or thought in your head and putting it up on a platform. And I think that’s where Anchor has been successful. It’s like, “Hey, how do we bridge that gap for you and get that thought in your brain out?” It’s crazy to me that in 2019, the medium that is the easiest to generate in terms of talking is actually the hardest one to get out to the world. We’re sitting in a room with four huge microphones and headphones, yet we’re walking around with these phones that have microphones in them that are connected to the internet. That was always the gap that we wanted to bridge with Anchor. I feel like we’re making progress.

The reason I keep coming back to YouTube is because YouTube is huge. It has captured the entire video distribution market. The problems that they run into are very obvious problems for audio as well. Last week, YouTube said they were not going to monetize conspiracy theories or recommend them in the algorithm. A few months ago, Spotify stopped recommending R. Kelly songs. When you have this huge catalog of stuff and you’re democratizing creation and controlling distribution and monetization, there is now a pretty well-understood set of problems, if not a pretty well-understood set of solutions. Do you see yourself playing a part in managing those problems now, or are you focused on working to help create and send out to the platforms?

I don’t know. I think it’s hard to talk about what the future looks like from that perspective. I will tell you something that we have always been really encouraged by and honestly kind of pleasantly surprised by since the beginning of Anchor is how thoughtful people are and how sort of respectful we’ve found people to be in audio.

I don’t know what it is about voice versus, you know, video or text on the internet, but it seems like the conversation is more thoughtful and respectful, and I think people are just a little more mindful of what they’re saying. Maybe because they’re focusing on their words and nothing else.

We do have processes in place to take care of the obvious things that we don’t think should be out there around hate speech and racism and misogyny and all that stuff. But, again, we’ve been surprised and delighted by how thoughtful people are with the platform.

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In the month since Spotify announced plans to spend up to $500 millionon podcasting, it’s homed in on exclusive content plans, hinted at ongoing work to improve discovery, and broadly started to construct a picture of how it views the future of podcasts.

Spotify has been on a media blitz to hype up its plans. Most everyone involved in the deals, including Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and Gimlet Media’s Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber have appeared on calls, at conferences, and, of course, on podcasts to discuss what’s coming next.

The big questions have been about what Spotify is going to do next with its first two acquisitions. Spotify spent more than $300 million to acquire Gimlet Media, the maker of Reply All and other popular shows, and Anchor, the company behind an app that allows anyone to easily create their own podcasts. Both will continue to operate, but they’ll do so with the added goal of making Spotify the go-to destination for podcasts.

This much is clear: Spotify knows podcasts can generate ad revenue — podcasts are estimated to bring in $659 million in revenue by 2020 — and it’s willing to invest in exclusive content to make sure that people listen on its platform. Still, the team has a lot of work to do to bring podcasts to the masses and make Spotify the default listening app. Here’s where the company is starting.


Spotify thinks helping people find their new favorite podcast could be the key to its success.

One of the podcasting business’s biggest hurdles is discovery. Helping a listener find a new show that they’re guaranteed to like is difficult, and no company has made a recommendation algorithm as successful for podcasts as Netflix has made for movies and TV.


Spotify has been successful in this realm when it comes to music, with playlists like Discover Weekly, and it intends to create the same kind of feature for podcasts. “The music that we feed to you through our discovery engine through our machine learning is pretty darn good,” said Courtney Holt, Spotify’s head of studio and video, at the Hot Pod Summit at On Air Fest in Brooklyn, New York. “Well, guess what? That team is now working on podcasts.”

Ek emphasized a similar idea on the company’s most recent earnings call about the two acquisitions, referring more broadly to improving the “user experience” around podcasts on Spotify. That likely means doing a better job of helping people find them and being the best player where users can listen to them.

“We believe that there’s still an enormous amount of potential in improving the user experience,” Ek said on a call with investors. “And as we do that, we have a great opportunity of growing our share in podcast.”


Creating new podcasts and making Spotify the only place to find them is going to play a big part in Spotify’s podcast strategy. That fact has been confirmed over and over again.

“You’ll see us double down on investment spending in podcast content, and increasingly you’ll see more of that become exclusive on the platform,” Spotify CFO Barry McCarthy said at a Morgan Stanley conference.


Spotify will experiment with exclusivity and release windows on its original shows, Blumberg, one of Gimlet’s co-founders, said in an interview with the Recode Mediapodcast. He also committed to keeping existing shows available across platforms.

“This is a new world, and we’re trying to figure out how it works,” Blumberg said. “And so it’ll be a mix of exclusive things that we make exclusively for Spotify, like we’re doing right now with Mogul, or things that are windowed or things that are a mix of the two. I think there’s gonna be a lot of experimentation.”

With shows made for and at least somewhat locked into Spotify, people have wondered how Gimlet’s reputation as a maker of incredible shows will change.

During the Hot Pod Summit, an invite-only day of podcasting talk, host and journalist Nick Quah asked whether Gimlet’s startup story was over now that it had a big corporate parent. In response, Holt compared Gimlet to Pixar and Marvel, saying that even after they were purchased by Disney, they continued operating as discrete and successful studios.


“I think there’s things that Gimlet’s going to do that maintains the independence of what they’ve always done, and my hope is that there will be many more chapters of Gimlet over the next X number of years,” he said.

Some of Spotify’s big podcast hires have the backgrounds to make that happen.

Holt, prior to running Spotify’s studios and video department, started his own multichannel network company for YouTubers that Disney eventually acquired. Clearly, he’s familiar with the Disney model and the broader MCN model of operating multiple brands under a single corporate entity.


Meanwhile, McCarthy served as Netflix’s CFO prior to Spotify. During his chat at the Morgan Stanley conference, McCarthy mapped out how Netflix’s video model can be applied to podcasts at Spotify. That means building “super good, predictive algorithms, like we developed at Netflix” so Spotify knows what people like, he said, then using those algorithms to figure out what kind of shows to make next. McCarthy calls this scenario “my nirvana.”

McCarthy said that Spotify won’t be an “arbiter of taste,” like HBO, but instead, it will make its name optimizing content creation and greenlighting shows that are sure to succeed. “Over time, we have lots of exclusive content because we get super successful at predicting how much to spend and what to invest in because we’re able to extract insights and data we’ve accumulated about our users’ taste.”

Spotify isn’t the only company hoping that its exclusive podcasts will compel listeners to pay for access. Stitcher offers Stitcher Premium, and newcomer Luminary, which raised $100 million to launch a subscription-based podcast service, just announced its star-studded show lineup. Spotify has steep competition.


The wild card purchase that no one anticipated was Spotify acquiring Anchor, a company that aims to make podcast creation easy. Anchor’s app lets users record audio by holding their phone up to their face, distribute their show across multiple players, and simply check a box to gain access to sponsors.

Up until now, Spotify hasn’t seemed to care about making audio creation easy. The company doesn’t make the tools; rather, it gives musicians and podcasters a place to publish their work.


Anchor CEO Michael Mignano tells The Verge’s Vergecastpodcast that his company’s creation tools are what made it attractive to Spotify.

“Daniel [Ek, CEO of Spotify] said something to me, which I think is awesome and which really resonated with us, which was that he and Gustav [Söderström, chief R&D officer at Spotify] and the wider Spotify organization wanted to give Anchor superpowers,” he said. “What that meant was really around giving us the support and the infrastructure to be able to make better tools, to be able to offer better data, and, in general, make podcasting better.”

Spotify’s CFO admits the company doesn’t know which will be more fruitful: user-generated shows, or Spotify-made originals. So it’s investing in both. “We’re going to place a bet on both ends of the spectrum,” McCarthy said.

It’s easy to imagine Spotify tracking up-and-coming creators and bringing them into Spotify’s exclusive podcast world, although the company hasn’t said anything about that aspect of the business. Right now, it seems that Spotify doesn’t know whether up-and-comers can have more pull than established names, like Amy Schumer, who already has a Spotify show.


Holt pointed out that Spotify offers the same analytics tools to up-and-coming musicians as it does for established artists, thereby making it a creator-friendly platform, and Mignano indicated that that could extend to podcasts, too.

Analytics has been a notorious blind spot for podcasters, although that’s starting to change with Apple launching its own analytics platform, NPR pushing its Remote Audio Data ad-tracking solution, and Spotify providing its own demographics analytics. Anchor creators could benefit from Spotify’s robust listener data, which might help them make show-topic decisions or more generally influence how they create.


Podcast industry watchers are concerned about exactly how Spotify’s ad practices are going to shape up. Spotify hasn’t given much information on how it’ll treat listeners’ privacy, if it’ll ultimately help or hinder creators’ ability to monetize their work, or whether it’s more interested in being an ad network, a listening service, or a creation platform.

Spotify already builds ads into its listening platform for non-paying users, and certain Spotify shows, like the Dissect show with Sonos, have exclusive partnerships that its ad team negotiates on an individual basis. Holt, the head of studios, said the current focus of the sales team is selling ads on the shows that Spotify develops in-house or licenses. Ads that non-Spotify shows embed can stay on the platform.

Ad technology will likely become the most interesting part of Spotify’s podcast endeavors, given that it’s invested so much money in the industry and wants a return on it. Ultimately, the company thinks if it has good content, and thereby good engagement, it’ll be able to monetize, regardless of whether people pay to subscribe.

“If we see a lot of engagement, we’ll have a lot of success monetizing ad revenue from the engagement with the paying users and the free users,” McCarthy said.