Michelle Obama, Podcast host: How Podcasting on Spotify has Become a Billion-Dollar Business

“You are sort of failing your way to success,” noted Matt Lieber, head of podcasting at Spotify, at this year’s Audio-craft competition, an annual weekend of panel discussions on podcasting.
Usually held in Sydney, this year’s competition moved online ( COVID -19).

Lieber talked about StartUp, his podcast about the 2014 launch of Gimlet Media, where Lieber and his corporate partner Alex Blumberg wanted to build a podcast studio that could become “the HBO of audio.”

Last year, Gimlet hit the jackpot. It was acquired by Spotify for US$230 million (A$322 million).

While podcasts have been on the web since 2004 (“But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?” the Guardian asked), the 2014 series Serial is essentially credited with ushering in a whole new growth for the form.

Serial was downloaded over 420 million times in 2018; S-Town, from the same production company, was downloaded forty million times in its first month.

Last week, The New York Times (whose own The Daily has passed the 1000000000 downloads mark) acquired Serial Productions for $25 million (A$35 million).

What used to be just a fringe business is now a multi-billion dollar industry.

The evolving numbers

For a long time, podcasting was touted as the most democratic and available form of journalism and public engagement.

Podcasts allowed hobbyists to indulge their passion for Greek legends, friends to review their favorite books, celebrities to show their human side, and media companies to rehash memories too unwieldy for a newspaper or television format.

The early low-budget podcasts on specific topics were a far cry from shows like Serial or The Joe Rogan Experience.
(The latter is hosted by comedian Joe Rogan, reportedly has one hundred ninety million downloads per month, and was acquired by Spotify in May for around US$one hundred million (one hundred forty million AUD).

While some Spotify suggestions can be heard on other podcasting services, productions like The Joe Rogan Experience and the platform’s newest offering, the Michelle Obama Podcast, are exclusive to Spotify.

Obama’s podcast, which launches today, looks at the “relationships that make us tick” – and it’s no longer a surprise that her first guest is her husband.

Spotify has invested about US$696 million (A$975 million) in podcast acquisitions over the past 18 months. That amount does not include the undisclosed sums Spotify paid for deals with the Obamas and Kim Kardashian West to provide unique suggestions, nor the money Spotify invests internally.

While Rogan and Obama’s podcasts are free (for now), they could draw people to the platform and, Spotify hopes, create paying subscribers.
Obama’s 2018 memoir, Becoming, has sold more than 10 million copies: that’s a lot of capable listeners.

Far from those mega-funded dollars, independent producers are nonetheless developing smaller offerings for engaged audiences.
Many who attended Audio-craft were these independent producers who wanted to learn more about the art, craft and commercial enterprise of bringing their podcast ideas to life.

Such efforts were mocked with the help of a recent ABC skit in which celebrities implored people to stop quarantining podcasting.

The skit polarized viewers: older people laughed, but younger people resented it because they saw it as an entitled elite wanting to control something that should be a vast open space with no gatekeepers.

This divide is a growing concern for podcast producers.

Pushing boundaries

The other big competitor in podcasting is Amazon-owned Audible, which has been on a “multi-million dollar buying spree” for podcasts in recent years.

With Spotify tying listeners to its platform and Audible’s podcasts available only to paying subscribers, we are miles away from believing in the open web on which the form is built.

Yet even in this world of multi-million dollar offerings, impartial producers are affirming their right to shape the industry.

Renay Richardson, a black British podcaster whose impassioned talk at Audiocraft wowed audiences, founded Broccoli Content to improve diversity in podcasting.
This year, she released an Audio Pledge advocating for fair pay and illustration for minority voices.

It has been signed by more than 250 companies so far, including Spotify and the BBC.

An intimate art form

According to Spotify’s Matt Lieber, podcast listeners want to hear a story, analyze something new, and find a person to hang out with. One survey met all 3 criteria.

Bird’s Eye View was filmed at the Darwin Correctional Center overa period of years. Funded with the help of Northern Territory authorities and the Australia Council and independently distributed, Birds Eye View offers tremendous insight into the lives of incarcerated women.

With uncooked empathy, the podcast contains moving recollections of women talking about abuse, addiction and crime on the outside, combined with darkly comic memories of life in prison.
It’s a testament to deep relationships formed over a long and intense period of production.

The result is compelling, private storytelling, which is where podcasting excels.

Some producers worry that market forces will stifle creativity and innovation because the business is growing so fast.

There’s an old saying that if you can fake sincerity, you have made it. If the big podcasting structures unlearn that, we will all be poorer.

What has long been unique about podcasting is the authenticity of the many different voices and the intimate relationship they form with listeners who immediately speak to our ears. If these qualities are undermined by the pursuit of profit, much of the magic of podcasting could be lost.

Podcasts are great – and maybe update the radio to listen to something while you are doing something else, like walking or traveling.

I used to have a matchbox-sized subscriber on hand that I had to keep in my pocket and press the pause/play button with my thumb when I wanted to pause a conversation.

However, that became an exhausting connection and I started having problems with broken cable connections, so I eventually started using wi-fi headphones – which required a pass for the wi-fi subscriber – and I currently have the free podcast app Overcast on my iPhone, which is good except that it downloads too much, so I put it back on stream to save space.

But now I listen less – my first weekly show is This American Life – superbly produced in Chicago with an exciting story and musical soundtrack – about a 1 hour show a week – that’s the measure of how much I pay attention to podcasts now

I have been wrestling with how to pause/play podcasts without pulling my iPhone out of my pocket to look at the screen – but finally figured out that the Bose QC35ii headphones have a pause button on the right ear-cup – so now I use that to pause/play my podcasts.


Hey there! I'm Joey, I am 22 and started to work as a barista in a café lately. I do coffee arts, they are good, not bad but it still needs a lot of practice. I love music, especially rock and roll!

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