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What S-Town’s success says about the state of podcasting

It’s still pretty early.

Aerial View Of Shuhe Wetland Park In Rizhao's Juxian County
Not the garden maze from S-Town.
VCG/VCG via Getty Images

S-Town, the hit podcast from the producers of Serial and This American Life, continues to set new audience records.

In its first month, the seven-episode series — a non-fiction narrative about a fascinating guy in Alabama and his supposedly shitty town — was downloaded more than 40 million times, podcast-industry follower Nicholas Quah reported for Vulture. That beat previous records set by Serial’s second season and is several times larger than the podcast audience for the pioneering show This American Life, which started on public radio in the 1990s.

What does that mean?

In his Hot Pod newsletter today — required reading if you care about podcasting — Quah tries to explain what this says about the increasingly-mainstream-but-mildly-dysfunctional podcasting industry.

In short, it seems the podcasting world is now at a point where it’s both early enough — yet big enough — that excellent new hit shows can zoom far beyond recent prior hit shows, and that those audience numbers can be meaningfully large.

“Which is to say,” he writes, “because the ecosystem is still emergent — that is, comparatively unburdened with an extensive sense of its own creative and financial history — it remains relatively easy for bold, audacious experiments to make their way to market to test the limits of their opportunities, and there exists a sense that the medium’s audiences still have appetites that can tolerate, and maybe even expect, greater unconventionality.”

(It’s also possible, he adds, “that a good story is a good story is a good story.”)

One crucial question Quah asks is whether S-Town’s success is “unique to the conditions set up by its progenitor, This American Life,” the public radio show that has been around for decades, has a relatively famous founder and has had a string of recent hits.

Can anyone do S-Town? Is the podcasting industry primed for more outsized successes from anywhere? Or only from Ira Glass’s Serial gang?

Quah’s answer: It’s hard to tell, but the pedigree situation probably played a big part. “There is just so much about that project that's frankly unreplicable.”

But there’s another recent, popular show, he writes, that’s a good example of something breaking through without a special head start: Missing Richard Simmons.

Quah writes:

That show, in many ways, came out of nowhere, and it's a particularly strange production at almost every level. It was a real-time mystery but also a biography but also a confessional but also a piece of celebrity media. It was an extravagant exercise in building a boat mid-sail. It held no prominent names on the creative team — both Pineapple Street Media and First Look Media, I’d argue, carry virtually no weight with general audiences — and the marketing push was light-to-moderate, at best. It lay on the subject, the celebrity Richard Simmons, to carry the bulk of the weight as the audience draw, and even then, the actual potential return of that celebrity was probably hard to estimate at the time of release. But the show ended up being an undeniable hit despite all of that.

On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release, which is a considerable feat that the show achieved with none of the advantages of This American Life that I previously mentioned. Missing Richard Simmons was the show, I think, that properly represented the opportunities of the space's still-low barriers to entry, more so than S-Town.

More Quah at Hot Pod.

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