(L-R) Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, Jon Favreau of the popular ‘Pod Save America’ podcast.
Getty Images for Boston Calling
Have we reached peak podcast? It might be a sign when your favorite podcast announces a spinoff and your heart sinks, giving you the feeling you used to get when the teacher announced extra homework for the weekend. Depending on the source, there are between 750,000 and 2 million podcasts, with more than 30 million hours of episodes available. With 8,706 hours in a year, you would need more than 3,000 years to listen to all of them.
“Serial” with 340 million downloads kicked off the podcast boom.
I blame Serial. When that podcast juggernaut hit in 2014, now boasting more than 340 million downloads, podcasting seemed to go from a niche hobby, like knitting or whittling, to the primary source of information for a huge slice of America. It’s hard to believe there was a time before specialty razor blades, meal ingredient packages, or mattresses delivered in boxes, but there was, and, in some ways, life was even pleasant at times.
Since the podcast boom, the industry has provided experts in history, cooking, language, politics, social media, mysteries—every subject imaginable. It’s probably too soon to know if we’re in a 17th century Danish tulip craze or a permanent reordering of the media landscape (to hedge their bets, huge media conglomerates like The New York Times and the broadcast networks all host a slew of podcasts, with new investment groups announced all the time), but we’re definitely in a golden age of people talking about stuff that interests them.
Podcasting requires minimal investment: a host, a mic, and a computer.
I walk to and from work most days. My office is about a mile from home and in the hundreds of hours I walk a year, I’ve had the chance to test out dozens of podcasts. Most were either too narrow or too broad in topic to hold my interest consistently. And in the process, I discovered something about my taste in podcasts: I like authenticity, I love creativity, and I really love good humor. Along the way, I’ve become a big fan of three podcasts that I find inspirational for leaders of creative companies.
Each podcast conveys varied and compelling information. None claim overtly to offer business or leadership advice. I find most podcasts that do offer such advice often dogmatic or humorless. Life is complex. Have a little fun. Most leadership podcasts also suffer from the tendency to navel gaze—Ted-talky types interviewing other Ted-talky types. There’s nothing wrong with a Ted Talk or two. But the business leadership community can become pretty insular; the bland leading the bland.
These three podcasts are counterintuitive gems for business leadership ideas.
That’s why I recommend these three podcasts as counterintuitive gems for business leadership ideas. Each is about an hour once or twice a week. Each covers topics you might not have explored, with expert commentary that will make you think differently about it. Each is fun. And each almost always contains an idea or two that helps me to approach my own business in a new way. Finally, each is helmed by an entrepreneur or entrepreneurs who have built interesting businesses around their subject of expertise. They started as bootstrappers. The stories of their businesses are insightful and inspirational.
Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor of ‘Pod Save America’ hosted an HBO version … [+]
Pod Save America—Whatever your political leanings, the story of Pod Save America and its parent company, Crooked Media, is inspirational. Founded by three former Obama staffers: Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor, the company took its name from Donald Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” taunt. In a political party often known for timidity, these thirtysomethings approach the challenge of combatting the right-wing commentariat with courage and good humor. Watching the company grow from these three young friends who felt a sense of hopelessness in light of unthinkable election result to nearly 50 smart, eager full-time staffers, all self-funded, is an inspiration in itself.
There’s an “early Beatles in hoodies” nature to the friendship the three convey—Favreau provides steady leadership, Vietor provides expertise, and Lovett provides humor. They cover debates and impeachment on YouTube with commentary from their Slack channel, and they bring their dogs to the office. At a time when the nation’s political discourse feels hopeless and rancorous, Pod Save America’s tone is bright, irreverent and hopeful. The brand has spawned numerous spin-offs, an HBO series, and a daily news show. Unlike most media organizations, Crooked Media is proud to advocate for causes. The company’s listeners have contributed millions of dollars to progressive causes promoted by the three founders.
Representative program: Since each show is topical, the latest episode is always the best.
The Beatles have been inspiring people for more than 50 years.
There’s Something About The Beatles—It may seem odd to turn to a 50-year-old rock group to get business ideas for today, but There’s Something About The Beatles reminds listeners of the sheer improbability that a few kids from a hardscrabble port in Northern England would somehow change the world with a body of work that seems as fresh and innovative today as it ever has. Hosted by writer Robert Rodriguez (with, for the first 122 episodes, fellow writer Richard Buskin), the show delves into minute but important elements of the Moptops’ innovative and successful career. SATB is manna for Beatles fans, with guests like a photographer from the 1968 “Mad Day Out” or a crew member from the 1969 final rooftop concert. The show is also a great gateway for casual fans, with guests like a college professor Beatles historian and several writers from The Simpsons. One of those writers, Jeff Martin, observes that The Beatles were constant disruptors whose only consistency was change, which inspired other creative disruptors from Monty Python to the writers of his show. To spend an hour a week going on the journey recounting the exploits of a couple of guys who met at a church picnic and went on to change a generation and an industry might be the best hour of creative inspiration you can find anywhere.
Representative program: The program deconstructing the Paperback Writer/Rain single offers the best of the Beatles and the show’s hosts.
Journalist Ezra Klein, host of “the Ezra Klein Show” podcast (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris)
Getty Images for The New Yorker
The Ezra Klein Show—Unlike the other podcasts, The Ezra Klein Show is a more straightforward concept: a really smart person having an hour-long conversation with other really smart people. But there’s something almost innocent about the way Klein approaches his interviews, as though any subject can be understood and justified if you just break it down into its elements and take each one at a time. This method has taken Klein from a relatively average student who began blogging at UC Santa Cruz, to developing a significant byline at The Washington Post, to becoming a media mogul in his own right, as a founder of Vox.com. Klein appears to lean left politically, but he welcomes an ideologically varied group of guests from all parts of the political spectrum. His interview style is respectful and probing. He has a compelling tendency to appreciate his guests. He seems to try to put himself in their shoes, so that even if you disagree with them, you feel yourself ending the hour with more respect for their humanity and, sometimes, even their ideas.
Representative program: The show about how Vox.com came about is a must-listen for anyone interested in the media business. In a shrinking media world, Vox.com and its ever-growing properties provide a template for how thinking differently can lead to growth in a disrupted industry.