E.Earlier this year, two men started a podcast made up of meandering conversations about their friendship and the state of the world. There is nothing unusual about that. Of the roughly two million existing podcast series (that’s 48 million episodes and counts), a large part consists of groups of men who talk about themselves and laugh at their own jokes. The difference in this case was that the friends were Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. When they launched the Spotify series Renegades, they brought together two distinctive audio trends: the old friends chew the fat series and the now ubiquitous celebrity podcast.
The Celebrity franchise has been an area of growth for a while, but the past 12 months has seen a surge in projects from celebrities who have been at a loose end due to the lockdown. While much of the entertainment industry has been devastated by the pandemic, podcasting has proven largely virus-safe, making it an attractive proposition for those who may not have looked at it again a year ago. As a result, the celebrity podcast has become the audio industry’s link, sucking up budgets, stifling competition, and in some cases heralding daunting loss of quality.
Right now, it’s almost easier to count the actors, comedians, influencers, musicians, reality TV stars, and retired politicians who don’t have a podcast than those who do. Recent audio converts include Barack and Bruce Louis Theroux, Jeremy Paxman, Bill Clinton, Katherine Ryan, Julie Andrews, Minnie Driver, Gary Kemp, Rob Brydon, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Joss Stone, Paris Hilton and Rob Lowe, Jason Bateman and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Her brand new audio adventures combine with long standing projects like David Tennant, Oprah, Jessie Ware, Chelsea Peretti, Kate Hudson, Snoop Dogg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lena Dunham and many others.
Pow-wow couple … Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama. Photo: Rob DeMartin / AP
All of this makes perfect sense for podcasting networks looking to make a profit. Big names mean big audiences, and advertisers are more likely to throw money on a podcast with an A-Lister attached than on a niche series about the joys of owning pens or chameleons (yes, both of them exist). Renay Richardson, the founder of Broccoli Productions, a London-based podcast production company, notes a “laziness” at the start-up.
“Companies are reluctant to find new audiences and get them interested in podcasts,” she explains. “It’s easier to rest on an established audience than to learn what it takes to create a new one. Whether it’s a large network or an independent network, no one knows how to market a new podcast. So the answer is, “Let’s bring in a celebrity and rely on years of experience building our own brand.”
Meanwhile, the brave new world of audio is proving to be a lucrative side project for A-listers, who can reportedly charge millions in fees for unscripted pods. In the opening episode of Sorted With the Dyers, an advisory series with actor Danny Dyer and his reality star daughter Dani, Dyer Sr. does not worry about his motivations: “Let’s do it right, we deserve a crust,” he says delightedly . But being a successful actor, comic strip, or even royal refugee doesn’t automatically make someone a good interviewer – and interviews are the dominant format in the star-studded pod space.
One of the many problems with the celebrity interview series is reluctance to tackle difficult topics or limit bleak small talk. Listening to Kate Hudson’s podcast Sibling Revelry, in which she talks to famous siblings alongside her brother Oliver, means hearing the Hudsons whine about themselves, talk about their guests, and generally treat the entire company like a private cocktail party. Rob Lowe’s podcast Literally !, which promises “free-wheeling” conversations with his Hollywood buddies, is similarly burdened with shared memories and senseless chatter. Fun for them, yes, but a yawn for the rest of us.
Go with the pro … Louis Theroux. Photo: BBC
Similarly, annoying is that the same names keep appearing on celebrity-hosted series. Fans of comedian Katherine Ryan will be delighted with the arrival of her podcast series, Telling Everybody Everything, though their excitement might wane if they saw them in Samira Ahmed’s How I Found My Voice, Scroobius Pip’s Distractions, Brandi Glanville Unfiltered, Off Menu with Ed Gamble and James Acaster and James O’Brien’s full disclosure. In fact, inviting a celebrity friend to your podcast seems to have a similar etiquette to civic dinner parties, where guests are required to reclaim their hosts. Did you enjoy Elizabeth Day’s appearance on Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place? You can also hear Day interviewing Cotton on her own How to Fail series. Podcasting really eats itself away.
That’s not to say that all celebrity podcasts are awful. Grounded With Louis Theroux, which has conversations with Michaela Coel, Jon Ronson, and others, is excellent, largely because its host has made a career out of interviewing people and not being afraid to ask tough questions. In the US, Alec Baldwin’s audio sideline Here’s the Thing threatens to outperform his job, with the actor proving an insightful interviewer who is reassuringly profound. As with any heavily subscribed genre, quality inevitably varies between series. The problem is the sheer volume of podcasts, all of which are the same format and often have the same conversations.
This celebrity obsession is creeping into other audio realms as well. An increasing feature of documentary podcasts is bringing in stars to narrate, rather than using the journalists who wrote and researched them as presenters. Recent examples include Wondery’s Bunga Bunga podcast, in which actor and comedian Whitney Cummings reports on Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to political power in Italy. and the BBC’s Battle of the Century battle between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, presented by rapper Nas. The latter was presumably designed to add some sparkle to the series, which seems like an odd choice given its themes are among the most famous athletes in the world. By skydiving in famous storytellers, commissioning editors show little confidence in listeners who they apparently believe will not be able to generate interest without a big name attached.
Let doubt arise … Kate and Oliver Hudson. Photo: Spotify
Podcasting has long been hailed as a uniquely democratic medium, meaning anyone, famous or not, can try it out. But earning a wage or building a community around it is another matter. Whether or not the proliferation of celebrity pods is stifling competition depends on who you ask. Without exception, when you talk to large networks, they use the metaphor “rising tides are lifting all boats” and insist that anything that brings new ears to podcasting is a good thing.
However, this may not be comforting to independent developers trying to break into a crowded industry. Helen Zaltzman, host of Answer Me This !, a podcast that answers listeners’ questions that started 14 years ago, says that in some ways it would be more difficult to start now “because there are millions of podcasts that Ohrzeit compete for those of the people. But less so in some ways, because in 2007 we had to explain what podcasts are and how to get them and why they want them. Finding has always been difficult, and a problem the podcast gold rush has yet to fix. “
Richardson argues that the problem is not market saturation as is often claimed. “People have to stop saying this unless they really believe there are too many books, films, TV shows, and records. As the podcasting audience grows to the level of other media, reliance on important content from celebrities will decrease and creativity will increase. “
In the meantime, no one is suggesting that all celebrity podcasters should hang up their mics, though for all of us they might want to ask themselves a few questions before embarking on their shiny new side project. These could include: Are you a natural transmitter? Who is your series for? And when they want to chat with their friends, have they thought of picking up the phone?
Five celebrity podcasts worth listening to
Buckle up … Adam Buxton and the Hairy Bullet, his canine buddy Rosie. Photo: Ben Peter Catchpole
The Adam Buxton Podcast
It is not for nothing that comedian Adam Buxton calls his interviews “Ramble Chats”, with the episodes of his extremely popular series often lasting longer than 90 minutes. Similar to his old friend Louis Theroux, his success as a podcaster lies in his sensitive and curious interview style and a varied and interesting guest list.
Ian Wright’s everyday people
It’s hosted by celebrities, yes, but the real stars here are ordinary people with extraordinary stories to tell. Among Wright’s respondents are a soldier who walked 700 miles barefoot to raise money to research an incurable genetic disease and a Grenfell Tower survivor who set up a communal kitchen and cooked her way through trauma.
Feel aunt … Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine. Photo: Suki Dhanda / The Observer
Dear Joan and Jericha
Who needs celebrities having serious conversations with their friends when we can hear Julia Davis (of Nighty Night) and Vicki Pepperdine (Getting On) as excruciating aunts giving scornful relationship advice? Panting as Derek and Clive of Podcasting consider such puzzles as sagging breasts, stray spouses, and the optimal way for a woman to flash her genitals in one go.
That Clara Amfo has a lot of radio experience would always make her a decent podcaster, but there’s also a clear focus on This City, whose host talks to London’s famous residents about the places they care about, whether it’s restaurants, venues or the green spaces the city.
Get curious with Jonathan Van Ness
In the celebrity pods galaxy, this one aims higher than most as the Queer Eye star seeks to broaden its intellectual horizons. With the help of visiting experts, Van Ness examines art, economic equality, trans rights, the racial and prosperous gap, the early history of China and much more.