Rush Limbaugh. Sean Hannity. Glenn Beck. Mark Levin. Michael Savage. Laura Ingraham. These voices are giants in conservative media, and radio is their domain. Rush Limbaugh sits atop it all with a weekly audience of around 13 million listeners, many of whom have been following the magnetic and boisterous radio host for 20 years. That fact alone––how long his audience has been with him––should give you pause.
Limbaugh is not unique amongst his peers in that his average listener is in his 60s, and new, younger listeners are not materializing for many reasons. Conservative talk radio is on autopilot, coasting along with a loyal and aging audience. Only a few disruptors are in the mix, such as Glenn Beck, who left cable TV to start his own web-based company, The Blaze, which distributes to radio and satellite TV with an additional focus on podcasts. The attention paid to podcasting by The Blaze is notable because it signals an effort to reach a new audience, a younger audience, one that consumes media not when it’s live from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but whenever it’s convenient for them.
Millennials are the largest generation on earth, and their media-consumption habits are forcing traditional news outlets to change tactics in order to stay relevant. An expectation for on-demand technology separates Millennials from older generations, whether that be in news, dining, movies, or transportation. This is why the rise of podcasting is starting to catch some side-eye from established media such as radio.
Podcasting isn’t a new medium, by any metric, but it is new to being taken seriously. In 2006 only one in 10 Americans said they’d listened to a podcast. Today that number is one in three according to Pew. In that same time, the share of the public that understands what a podcast is has risen from 22 percent to 49 percent.
The demand for podcasts is exploding, and with it the number of options. Libsyn, the leading platform for hosting podcasts, boasted 12,000 shows in 2012, and by 2016 they carried just under 30,000. What was once a niche form of media for tech-savvy bloggers is becoming a mainstream industry, with $38 million dollars of advertising to support it. Furthermore, we are rapidly headed toward a future of self-driving cars, and the majority of traditional radio consumption occurs in vehicles already. Podcasts are more than likely to be built into these smart cars, such as one being made by Apple, and from there the on-demand nature of podcasts is only going to become more normalized.
So what does the future look like for conservative talk? A new generation of conservative and libertarian talent is rising up out of the podcasting world, and you can bet that their popularity will grow with time. Provocative political commentator Ben Shapiro, a former editor-at-large for Breitbart and now founder of The Daily Wire, hosts a daily radio-style show on Facebook Live that reaches thousands and is then distributed in the form of a podcast. Shapiro offers a presentation in line with conservative talk-radio tradition: impassioned monologues and a bare-knuckled approach to discussing progressivism. On the other side are the slew of think tanks, non-profits, and policy-centered organizations in the beltway that work to further right-of-center causes: Reason, The Federalist, National Review, The Weekly Standard, AEI, Heritage, the Manhattan Institute. Their shows offer something distinct in the marketplace. They are measured and intellectual and grapple with political issues using something talk radio isn’t familiar with—nuance.
Ricochet, the leading network for conservative podcasts, boasts six programs with a loyal and ever-growing audience that is notably younger than that of conservative talk radio. The Ricochet Podcast is hosted by Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter, and National Review columnists James Lileks and Rob Long. They regularly feature beltway policy wonks, as well as known commentators like Ann Coulter. It’s a satisfying mix for conservatives in need of a dose of academia alongside unvarnished opinion programming. Perhaps what is most different about conservative podcasts from talk radio is the prevalence of comedic talent in the top 50. Comedians Joe Rogan, Adam Carolla, Steven Crowder, and Dennis Miller all have a sizable footprint in this market, Carolla most of all, thanks to his television background at MTV, Comedy Central, and Spike.
As a new generation of pundits and entertainers rises to the forefront of conservative culture, it may be worth considering whether the conditions of yesteryear can ever truly be replicated. The next Rush Limbaugh or Firing Line will exist in a marketplace far more crowded than ever before, so will they be able to lead a single majority of the conservative movement? Or will it be a sharper version of what we have today—factional segmentation of the movement with prominent leaders in each faction? We can never know for sure which way technology and media will break, but at this point all the market signals are pointing to the demise of the cable-TV model and talk radio. Among other things, old-school advertisers are not comfortable with the amount of exposure they have to controversy in the social-media era. We saw this after Rush Limbaugh famously assailed Sandra Fluke and more recently with the downfall of Bill O’Reilly. As advertising dollars for radio dry up, so will the programming. On-demand entertainment that is customized with a narrow subset of consumers in mind is taking us toward a podcasting boom in the next decade. With that boom you will see younger voices rise to prominence in conservative media through these channels. The question is, again, how broad will their appeal be in the age of individualized entertainment?
The future of media belongs to those who are prepared for change, and there is no doubt that a huge crop of talent within the podcasting community is readying itself in the wings for the spotlight.
Stephen Kent is the public-relations manager and spokesperson for Young Voices. He hosts the Young Voice daily podcast.