Podcasting Profits: How an Obscure Internet Phenomenon Became the 21st-Century's Biggest Digital Gold Rush

Podcasting is the perfect medium for the digital age. It's agile and decentralized. It lets the audience listen to what they want, when they want it. It's available on laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. It demands just a fraction of our attention yet allows us to absorb important (and even life-changing) information as we're driving or powering through a 10k on the treadmill.

It’s also big business. In fact, it's a huge industry that’s expected to smash the $1billion barrier by the end of 2021. So how much are the innovative content creators behind podcast’s rapid rise making from their bedrooms and custom-designed studios? The TopDollar financial insights hub decided to find out. Its researchers looked at data from Chartable and AdvertiseCast to create a breakdown of the highest-earning podcasts in the world. Here's a look at what they found.

The podcast king

Joe Rogan is the undisputed podcast king. The stand-up comedian and UFC commentator started the Joe Rogan Experience podcast back in 2009. By 2015 it was one of the most popular podcasts in the world, attracting millions of viewers per episode and a long list of famous (and sometimes controversial) guests. In May 2020 Rogan announced an exclusive licensing deal with streaming service Spotify. Rumors say Rogan scooped $100million by signing on the dotted line. But the real winner is Spotify. The company share price jumped by 7% following the news, and Spotify is expected to collect over $70million a year in ad revenue from hosting the podcast.

At the moment, no podcasters on earth can rival Rogan's or the USA’s podcasting earning power. Europe’s biggest-earning podcast, UK comedy show Sh**ged Married, and Annoyed, brings in 'just' $10million a year from advertising. At the same time, the majority of the number 1 podcasts in other countries generate less than $1million annually.

Empowering, not placating, audiences

Podcasting bypasses the traditional media gatekeepers. Moreover, it gives listeners direct access to information that was previously only available to a select few. For example, the Real Vision podcast series interviews banking and finance experts to help people understand the complexities of the global economy. Other business-focused podcasts, including the US-based GaryVee Audio Experience, give listeners the tools they need to launch or improve their own businesses. And there's lots of money to be made from helping others do the same. As the number one business podcast on the planet, the GaryVee Audio Experience has an estimated annual value of just under $7million.

Four other countries have a business podcast worth over $1million a year. They are Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Russia. The One in a Million Books series is Russia's most popular business podcast. It condenses the best books on business and leadership into bite-sized, 10-minute episodes.

A new way to explore old ideas

Podcasting is a serious business where the best content creators are making serious money. What's more, podcasting created a new digital public square where people can discuss important socio/cultural issues without being interrupted by the time and form constraints of traditional media outlets .As such, many of today's leading public intellectuals have regular podcasts with viewing figures that would turn a TV network director green with envy. Around 1million people watch episodes of The Making Sense podcast with neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris. And with titles like Final Thoughts on Free Will and Knowing the Mind, the popularity of this podcast suggests that large sections of the public are searching for intellectual stimulation rather than mere entertainment.

Funny business

But everybody likes to laugh. And the list of the world's biggest earning podcasts is full of light-hearted shows offering some much-needed comic relief.

The Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard is the highest-earning comedy podcast in the world. Dedicated to unpacking the 'messiness of being human,' the two-hour show focuses on no-holds-barred interviews with celebrities, actors, and comedians. Shepherd writes and directs the show, calling it an opportunity to sit in on a 'tragicomedy AA meeting without having to go through 10 years of substance abuse first.' Some of the show's notable guests include Jackass star Johnny Knoxville and Monica Lewinsky. Around 20million people tune into the weekly episodes, and the show's advertisers pay an estimated $9million a year for regular shout-outs. But that figure is about to rise. Armchair Expert recently became the latest podcast to jump on the Spotify bandwagon. From July 1st, the show will only be available via the streaming platform. Spotify hasn't disclosed the financial terms of the agreement, but an article in Forbes Magazine suggested it could be within the $50million range.

The USA continues to dominate the podcast world

Sports podcasting is another sub-genre dominated by US content creators. The ESPN-syndicated Dan Le Batard Show features commentary on daily sports news and interviews with analysts, coaches, and retired athletes. According to TopDollar researchers, the show makes $26,565,731 in annual ad revenue. That's 40x more than the second wealthiest sports show, James Smith's fitness and nutrition-based podcast. Once described as the Gordan Ramsey of the fitness world, the online personal trainer built up a massive army of social media followers thanks to his outspoken criticisms of toxic diet and fitness trends. This also caught the attention of large advertisers, who now pay $650,000 a year to share their messages on his podcast.

Tiny Iceland is home to the third most-listened-to-national sports podcast. The Dr. Football podcast generates a relatively small $500,000 a year in ad revenue. But Dr. Football sums up one of the best things about podcasting; it provides unique content to a niche but highly dedicated audience. In this case, the content is cerebral football talk in pure Icelandic.

The future of podcasting

This digital gold rush is just getting started. By 2024, advertisers will be spending $1.7billion to reach the eyes and ears of digital nomads who have ditched mainstream media networks for independent podcasts. But will today's top shows still dominate the podcast charts? And if not, who will take their place and collect the vast rewards on offer?
Podcasting Profits: How an Obscure Internet Phenomenon Became the 21st-Century's Biggest Digital Gold Rush
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