Stephen Dubner is bullish on the podcast industry

Stephen Dubner speaking at On Air Fest
Stephen Dubner speaking at On Air Fest | Alexa Hoyer

This is an excerpt of an interview that took place at On Air Fest on March 1st between Freakonomics Radio host Stephen Dubner and Hot Pod reporter Ariel Shapiro. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Alright so, you know podcasting. You know economics. What do you make of this moment in the podcasting industry?

It really depends on what angle you’re coming at it from. The short version is that there was probably a little bit too much panic, because of the combination of the recession that never quite happened, and then the big iOS adjustment and how it’s playing out in reality and in perception. Additionally, from the platform side, there was just massive, massive acquisition, acquisition, acquisition, consolidation, consolidation, and then it breaks. So it’s confusing. The good news for me is I don’t care that much.

That’s good. Ira Glass was here on Wednesday [February 28th], and he was quite upset about iOS.

The thing that I remind myself, and that I really believe and feel, is that we shouldn’t forget that [Apple] essentially plopped down a distribution system that is global, instant, and free. It’s like building railroad tracks to everywhere, and then all of us are free to put whatever trains we want onto those tracks and send them anywhere. And so should we be pissy that they have the control that they do, and sometimes make moves that we don’t like? Sure, you can be if you want.

I’m a writer, that’s really all I am, and I happen to write now for audio and interview people and make shows out of that. If you think about in the old days, the production system had all of these hoops and mechanisms and costs. I was at The New York Times Magazine. So if I wanted to write a piece for the magazine, it was all the reporting and thinking and writing, etc., and then the layers of editors, and there are probably fewer layers in podcasting than there were layers of editors at a place like The New York Times. Then it had to go through the photo desk, art desk, fact checking, copy editing, all of which is really good and really useful. But then The New York Times used to own newsprint farms in Canada, because they had to own the material on which it was printed. They had to buy that stuff, truck it to their printing presses, which they also owned, and then they owned trucks to deliver it to people. I mean, just think about how many layers that is and how expensive that is. So of all the bad things that have happened with journalism being cratered, which is bad, the fact is that this technology has given rise to a free, instant, global distribution system. It’s there for all of us to use and abuse and exploit however we want. So I don’t feel it’s my place to gripe about that kind of platform issue.

After the success of Freakonomics [the book], I’m sure there are a couple of different routes you could have gone. Why did you go into podcasting?

You’re absolutely right. We did have opportunities. There was a lot of flirtation with television. And I decided — I’m sorry, if anyone is offended by this — I do not like television. I do not happen to watch a lot of television. That’s not fair — I like watching television. That’s not untrue. But being a content provider in the television ecosystem, not for me. You just have too little control over your material. And if your material is what you care about, like, why would I want to do that?

What would Freakonomics TV have looked like?

The closest we ever got… I won’t name it, it was a big network. And they were perfectly good people. But it’s a volume business. Not that podcast production isn’t a volume business, but even with the best [television production companies], there was a certain degree of velocity and churn and, not dumbing down, but kind of reaching for a center. And not weird in any way. I’m not a super weird person, but I can’t live without at least a little bit of weird.

So you own Freakonomics Radio, the company, correct?


When there was so much money flooding the podcast market, did you get any offers for outright acquisition?

Oh, yeah. Stupid offers. I would never say who, but name a company and they were there. I have a good agent, Ben Davis [at WME]. Ben is really, really smart and helped develop the whole thing.

If you build a company, like, you know, a Gimlet or a Parcast or whatever — and every company is a little bit different — but if you’re building something that is not you and your blood and your brain, and you want to sell it, that’ll work. I mean, it might not work great. It might work for a handful of people and not great for everybody else. But it might work if you’re building a commodity business. If you’re doing something a little bit different, which is “I just want to make my thing,” I’d rather license it or have a partner.

Did you ever entertain any of the offers to sell?

Absolutely not. I think it can be done well. Like, I think what Sirius XM did with Conan was good. It’s a personal services contract, which is long enough so that they’ll get enough value from it, and then he’s not beholden. But then I don’t know what happens to the shows after. That’s kind of what I would worry about. Look, the Rolling Stones get heard on cat food commercials. And if they’re fine with that, then I’m fine with that, too. And I’m not worried that somebody’s going to buy my show and then use my archive to make MAGA commercials. But you could if you wanted to! Everybody has said everything in that show over the course of 14 years, so you could turn it into anything. I feel stupidly proprietary the way a lot of writers do. So I’m not saying never, but like, this is kind of my thing.

What are you listening to right now?

In terms of podcasts, I don’t listen to a ton. I check out a lot of podcasts. I’m always curious to see who’s doing a new thing and how they do it and always trying to learn.

You’re not keeping an ear on the competition?

I don’t think of them as competition! At some point, we’re gonna run out of ears, but we haven’t yet. There’s still a lot of upside. I mean, there are millions of people who would love what you all are making. They just don’t know it. If we want to fight about something, we should fight about discovery. That’s the problem. So no, I would never consider anybody in this room or any other room of podcasters competition at all, because the only discovery mechanism in the world for podcasting right now is other podcasts. So it’s more like getting someone hooked. If you’re heroin, and I’m crack, we’re buddies. We’re not competing.