By Darren Johnson
A couple of years ago, SiriusXM’s flagship personality, Howard Stern, made headlines by saying that podcasts weren’t very good. They all were horrible, he said.
At the time, that seemed ridiculous. Podcasts were hitting their stride and Stern’s show had decided to become very PC, with soft celebrity interviews; probably because Stern also was doing the syrupy NBC TV show “America’s Got Talent,” and he wanted to be more likeable.
Podcasters rebelled, casting off Stern as a relic who just didn’t get it.
But a lot can happen in a couple of years.
Podcasters have hit a lull. On the ones I listen to, I hear the same, repeated stories. The same tone. The same guests.
Also, the business model isn’t working. Generally, podcasts make money on ad sales — typically $25 per 1000 listeners. Or they run pay-per-call ads, where the podcaster gets a cut of the action; these are often for untrustworthy products. As well, looking at listening habits of fans on podcast apps, users tend to fast-forward through the commercials. A recent survey shows that only 37% of listeners actually trust podcast ads (compared to 71% with traditional radio — see graphic right).
One wonders if podcasters are inflating their numbers. Users have certain podcasts automatically download to their phones, but do they actually listen to them? I only listen to about 10 percent of the podcasts that automatically download to my phone. And most of them, I only partially listen to. Are the ads being heard? Nope.
Meanwhile, Stern’s show has been on fire in the past year and a half, since he left “AGT.” He’s cut down the number of butt-kissy celebrity interviews and now does whole episodes where he goofs on his staff, or has fun with his Wack Pack — a stable of people with various roadblocks in their lives. He’s gone back to calling his Wack Pack members by their original, politically incorrect names — only he can get away with that, so I won’t print their nicknames here. He sends a really good correspondent named Wolfie to nerd conventions, Trump rallies and such to get outlandish quotes from those who attend. He recently embedded Wolfie with Wendy, a mentally challenged fan favorite, who brought him dumpster diving with her — it was every bit as riveting as Orson Welles, but for our outlandish, Trump-electing era.
The show is wonderfully ridiculous, and Stern is no longer tired, just concentrating on the one job. Co-host Robin Quivers has also overcome her past health issues to help steer the show. “Robin’s News” actually gives me good conversation pieces to bring up later at the water cooler. Did you know that a kid from the Midwest came out of a coma speaking perfect Spanish, even though he’d never learned the language before? Fred Norris on sound effects manages the show well.
So, “The Howard Stern Show” has become my No. 1 “podcast” to listen to on my long commutes. He does about 10 or shows a month, four hours each, but, like a podcast, save the sound file and listen about an hour at a time. (I have a SiriusXM subscription; you can get one through your smartphone now.)
Most podcasts are about an hour, so Stern’s 40 hours a month of work matches some of the most prolific podcasters’ — so much for his work ethic diminishing.
It’ll be sad when this grand old show finally fades away. There’s nothing like it on radio or podcasts. But, for now, it’s as strong as ever.
If you had abandoned the show during the PC years, give it a retry. And try listening to it as a podcast — like most podcast listeners, you can fast-forward the commercials.
Darren Johnson owns Campus News, a popular media outlet with a printed newspaper hitting 37 colleges in the New York Metro market. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or not.