Left-wing talk radio is here. But it’s not on the radio.
Fueled by a feverish distaste for Donald Trump and a distrust of mainstream media, a wave of liberal podcasts helmed by anti-Trump hosts are reaching millions of politically active liberals increasingly seeking them out for both news and direction.
At least 1,000 political podcasts — most appearing to have a liberal or anti-Trump bent — have launched since the 2016 election, according to statistics provided to VICE News by the podcast hosting and analytics company Raw Voice. That’s a 35 percent increase in nine months. During the same period following the 2008 and 2012 elections, the spike in political podcasts was only 9 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
Shows like Chapo Trap House, Girl Friday, Pod Save America, Trumpcast, Unpresidented, Love Over Hate, The Tarfu Report, Delete Your Account, and many others are mobilizing small, energetic audiences, some of which voluntarily pay subscription fees to support their shows, even though they could listen for free.
The political energy flowing to podcasts hasn’t gone unnoticed by Democrats keeping their 2020 options open. Pod Save America, hosted by a fraternity of former aides to President Barack Obama and the breakout hit of the genre so far, has already become the go-to interview for ambitious progressives since its launch in January. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, and more have all become “friends of the pod” in recent months.
Unlike the news podcasts of NPR and the New York Times, these take an ideological slant, unapologetically trying to facilitate political action against both Trump and the Democratic establishment. And their listeners are taking action.
“More than the New York Times, Time magazine, or CNN, it’s Pod Save America where our volunteers and donors have heard of us,” said Ethan Todras-Whitehill, the co-founder of the “Resistance” group Swing Left, which has raised nearly $2 million to date for Democrats running for Congress in 2018 from over 40,000 individual donors. “They weren’t just amplifiers; they were strategic partners.”
That attraction is one of the signs that liberal podcasts could one day become a force on par with conservative talk radio, which has a direct line to tens of millions of politically active voters and has become a financially flush empire of best-selling books, merchandise, newsletters, and more.
“They play a big role in communicating with the base and the people who are particularly active in politics,” a top aide to a Senate Democrat told VICE News. “There’s a high value-add for senators who go on.”
“More than the New York Times, Time magazine, or CNN, it’s Pod Save America where our volunteers and donors have heard of us”
Some Republicans say they are relishing the rise of these podcasts because it will move the Democratic party further left immediately after the party lost the House, Senate, and White House in 2016.
“The Pod Bro’s are a gift to the Republican Party — pushing Democratic candidates to adopt extremely liberal policy positions that only appeal to the Kool-Aid drinkers,” said Jesse Hunt, the national press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Look no further than the Democrats’ failed special election run when gauging the impact of left-wing podcasts.”
The rise of these liberal podcasts has coincided with a so-called podcast renaissance. Monthly podcast listeners in the U.S. have doubled since 2013 to an estimated 67 million, with 42 million listening weekly, according to a recent survey by Edison Research. Those listeners are more likely to be college-educated, younger, and live in urban areas — a prime audience for Democrats. The exact audience for each episode and each podcast is not publicly available and is only self-reported, which has made some advertisers wary. More exact numbers will likely be coming in the future as Apple, which has the most popular podcast player in its built-in iOS app, announced this past June that they would begin providing analytics tools for podcasters.
That’s still a fraction of the approximately 290 million people who listen to traditional AM or FM radio each week, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Nielsen Media Research data in 2014. Even so, because they’re sought out rather than just stumbled upon, podcasts often attract a more engaged audience. That’s why average podcast ad rates are often comparable to those for cable television.
“The Pod Bro’s are a gift to the Republican Party — pushing Democratic candidates to adopt extremely liberal policy positions that only appeal to the Kool-Aid drinkers”
Many of the podcasts have developed special segments dedicated to mocking the president, his administration, and some of his more offensive supporters. Slate’s Trumpcast regularly features Trump impersonator John Di Domenico performing an audio-novella of the president’s most boorish tweets. Girl Friday’s Erin Gloria Ryan and guests dissect a recent missive of unsolicited criticism from an aggrieved conservative man on the internet, a segment known as “Man Displeased!,” on the podcast launched by CAFE. There’s the new podcast “Unpresidented,” tauntingly named for Trump’s tweeted misspelling of “unprecedented.”
“An incumbent party often stimulates the profitability of the other team,” said Mark Green, the former president of the now-defunct liberal radio network Air America, which launched during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Green, who also used to co-host a radio show with Arianna Huffington and is the founder of his own anti-Trump effort @ShadowingTrump, thinks podcasts have a chance to succeed where previous attempts at liberal talk radio have failed. “The energy against Trump is the greatest I’ve ever seen a political movement have since Vietnam; it’s multiples of the anti–Iraq War energy. With that fury, the talent, and the low costs to entry, this could commercialize itself and grow.”
Pod Save America became a top 20 podcast across platforms almost instantly after its January debut and has remained there every month since, according to the podcast tracking firm Podtrac. “It’s not about making people angry or afraid, but to try to figure out what to do, how to help, how not to give up,” Jon Lovett, a co-host of Pod Save America and the host of another popular podcast Lovett or Leave It, told VICE News.
Progressives have lined up around the block to see live tapings of the show; thousands don their swag, like the “Repeal and Go F*ck Yourself” T-shirts (On the radio, there are “Seven Dirty Words” you can’t say; in podcasting there are none); there’s a national tour coming, dubbed “Pod Tours America”’; and their Twitter replies are full of what could be called political groupies.
Conservatives have dominated the talk radio medium since the ’90s with figures like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, and Glenn Beck who have rallied the grassroots on certain issues and offer an alternative media source to the mainstream press, which many conservatives believe, with some reason, is inherently biased against them.
“There are only five political talk radio shows with 10 million or more weekly listeners, and they are all right-wing,” said Jeff Ullrich, founder of Midroll Media and a podcasting entrepreneur. “While I’m very bullish long-term on the growth of progressive and left-wing podcasters like Crooked and Chapo, their current distribution can’t touch their long-established counterparts, who have 10 times the audience today.”
“Talk radio on the left never really worked, and a lot of people concluded that talk radio was a conservative phenomenon,” Jacob Weisberg, the co-host of Slate’s Trumpcast, told VICE News. “But the intelligent liberal talk does really thrive in a podcast format.”
That format is usually shorter than the two to three hours of talk radio, edited instead of live, on-demand instead of at a certain time, smartphone-based instead of radio-based, and often more focused on a particular topic. There are also subscription models that allow podcasts to turn a profit with just a few thousand subscribers rather than needing to immediately attract a national audience.
While that lowers the barrier to entry, it has also created a balkanized audience spread across many outlets much smaller than conservative talk radio. And still some question whether the left can collectively ever create anything resembling the force of right-wing talk radio, especially since past attempts like Air America failed even with celebrities like Rachel Maddow and Al Franken fronting them.
“There hasn’t yet been this hunger among liberals and the left to seek out alternative media sources.”
“Conservative talk radio took hold in part because there was already a generation of activists that had been saying you can’t trust mainstream media, and I don’t think that has happened on the left, at least quite yet,” said Nicole Hemmer, author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and an assistant professor at University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “There hasn’t yet been this hunger among liberals and the left to seek out alternative media sources.”
But that may be changing, particularly as young people in both parties increasingly say they do not trust the mainstream press. In 2016, only 26 percent of people aged 18-49 said they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the media, according to Gallup. That’s down from 53 percent Gallup measured in 2005.
Chapo Trap House, which earns nearly $80,000 in monthly subscriptions through Patreon and offers by far the best Gorka impression, frequently targets the Democratic Party and media establishment alike while praising figures like Bernie Sanders and British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Like conservative talk radio and its frequent attacks on the Republican ruling class, Chapo and other podcasts on the left have found an audience in censuring the powers-that-be of the Democratic Party.
For their 100th episode, the podcast hosted a live show at Harvard with a March Madness bracket of all the “most evil” persons affiliated with the university. Henry Kissinger won in a blowout, but also making the tournament were Democrats that the hosts felt had gotten free passes by a corrupt media and political establishment. Those Democrats included Barack Obama (“generally weak and feckless presidency”), former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power (“had to basically spend every day going ‘Yeah, everything I’ve written about [human rights] doesn’t apply to Israel’”), and Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (“a mini Henry Kissinger”).
Asked if progressives have responded to the podcast because they no longer trust a mainstream media they see as too friendly with big business and too dismissive of progressives like Sanders, producer and co-host (and onetime VICE News reporter) Brendan James responded simply, “yes.”
In fact, Sanders himself has been so fed up with the media that this year he launched, you guessed it, a podcast. “Senator Sanders wanted to find a new and engaging way to discuss issues that don’t get enough attention from the corporate media,” said his spokesperson Josh Miller Lewis.
And Bernie bros aren’t the only ones challenging mainstream media from the left.
Supporters of Hillary Clinton have been critical of the media for, in their view, obsessing about her email server and being sexist n covering first woman nominee of a major party. Such criticisms reemerged this past month following a report from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center that found the media’s coverage of Clinton overwhelmingly focused on scandals whereas the coverage of Trump focused on his core issues.
Cliff Schecter, a veteran Democratic political consultant who launched the “Unpresidented” podcast in August, told VICE News that his podcast with fellow progressive John Aravosis will not provide the “false balance” that he believes the mainstream media provides Trump in an attempt to appear objective. “Nothing angers me more than that, because I think it helped Trump get elected,” he said.