Political Podcasts Are Having a Moment (And Making Real Money)

Jon Favreau, Symone Sanders and Jon Lovett - Pod Save America Panel - Getty - H 2017
Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images

Combining a large audience and a high advertising cost can generate annual revenue in the low millions for creators.

At a time when national politics is dividing the U.S. and revealing deep fissures in society, there are few media platforms bringing people together more than political podcasts. These podcasts aren't just vanity projects — they're also sustainable, high-value businesses. 

The amount of advertising revenue a podcast can bring in depends on how many ads run per show. Slate's popular political podcast, the Slate Political Gabfest, brought in about $1 million in revenue last year at a $25 CPM and an average download of a few hundred thousand per episode, a knowledgeable source told The Hollywood Reporter

The NPR Politics Podcast and Pod Save America are both in Podtrac's July ranking of the top 20 podcasts. Combining a large audience (measured in downloads) and a high advertising cost (the average CPM for a premium podcast is $25) can generate annual revenue in the low millions for particularly popular political podcasts, a digital media executive said.

Erik Diehn, the CEO of podcast advertising company Midroll Media, said that revenue for the political podcasts the company works with — including pods like Politically Re-Active with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu and Pantsuit Politics — has doubled this year compared to 2016.

These podcasts are riding high on a wave of record interest in politics and political analysis (particularly of the anti-Trump bent).

On July 29, the popular politics podcast Pod Save America nearly filled the Civic Auditorium at the Politicon conference in Pasadena for a live taping. The raucous applause when co-hosts Tommy Vietor, Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett came onto the stage was almost deafening. Not bad for three wonky ex-Obama staffers.

At a live taping of the Vox.com policy podcast The Weeds in April in Washington, someone showed up with a "We Love Sarah Kliff" sign. Co-host Sarah Kliff said the experience was "very bizarre," and yet it's somewhat representative — if not an extreme example — of the passion of political podcast fans. (The show has a very activate Facebook community, she said.)

Kliff, who is also a senior editor for Vox.com, said the audience for the podcast is "much more enthusiastic and much more engaged" than the audience for her web writing. With a podcast, "they kind of know you as a person, not just some disembodied name on a website," she said.

The Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg appeared on a panel at a live taping of Lovett's own show, Lovett or Leave It, this summer, and admitted to being shocked by the large crowd in attendance. "Maybe it's a function of age or lack of experience in the live podcasting space, but I was thinking, 'What the hell are you doing here?'" he said.

That experience convinced Goldberg to speed up the development process that led to The Atlantic launching a flagship podcast, Radio Atlantic, in mid-July. "I'm pleasantly surprised by the number of people who have downloaded and listened to us so far," Goldberg told THR.

Slate editor Julia Turner said the listener base for the company's political podcasts is growing. And, she said the audience for live tapings of the Gabfest and the Trumpcast podcast is "larger than ever." While the live tapings are primarily for audience engagement purposes, Turner said the events "make a solid amount of money" and are profitable for the company.

Lovett has said publicly that Crooked Media, the company set up to oversee Pod Save America and other podcasts, has had little trouble bringing in money and attracting potential investors. (Crooked Media is rumored to have beaten out other companies interested in working on a podcast with popular politician Jason Kander, though Vietor declined comment when asked.)

"We're making money hand over fist," Lovett told Recode's Kara Swisher at a SXSW panel discussion in March. "People say that making money in the content media game is hard, and that is just like not my experience," he said.

Vietor, his friend and co-host, told THR that Lovett was joking. "I don't think we'd made a single dollar at that point," he said. "He was fucking around."

But Lovett wasn't kidding when he said the company had been approached by interested investors, though they haven't accepted any fundraising yet. "Some day down the road we may want to, but we have not," Vietor said. The hosts have started paying themselves a salary from the revenue generated by advertising, though they're not raking it in just yet.

"We want to show that a progressive, activist media company can be successful, and we want others to follow suit," Vietor said.

While Pod Save America, Slate Political Gabfest, NPR Politics Podcast and others in the genre have clearly benefited from a Trump bump in interest, Vietor said he and his co-hosts are "clear-eyed" about the "roller coaster" they're currently riding. But, seven months into the Trump presidency, there doesn't seem to be any coming slowdown to the torrential pace of the news cycle, and that's good news for political podcasters of all stripes.