Earlier this year, two men launched a podcast made up of meandering conversations about their friendship and the state of the world. Nothing unusual there. Of the two million or so podcast series in existence (that’s 48m episodes and counting), a large proportion is made up of groups of men talking about themselves and laughing at their own jokes. The difference in this instance was that the friends were Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. In launching the Spotify series Renegades, they brought together two distinctive audio trends: the old-friends-chew-the-fat series, and the now-ubiquitous celebrity podcast.
The celebrity series has been a growth area for some time, but the last 12 months have brought a surge in projects from famouses who have found themselves at a loose end over lockdown. While much of the entertainment industry has been devastated by the pandemic, podcasting has proved largely virus-proof, making it an attractive proposition to those who, a year earlier, might not have given it a second look. As a result, the celebrity podcast has become the bindweed of the audio industry, hoovering up budgets, threatening to smother the competition and, in some cases, heralding a dispiriting drop in quality.
Right now, it is almost easier to count the actors, comedians, influencers, musicians, reality TV stars and retired politicians who do not have a podcast than those who do. Along with Barack and Bruce, recent converts to the audio cause include Louis Theroux, Jeremy Paxman, Bill Clinton, Katherine Ryan, Julie Andrews, Minnie Driver, Gary Kemp, Rob Brydon, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Joss Stone, Paris Hilton, Rob Lowe, Jason Bateman, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Their all-new adventures in audio join more longstanding projects from the likes of David Tennant, Oprah, Jessie Ware, Chelsea Peretti, Kate Hudson, Snoop Dogg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lena Dunham and many, many more.
For podcasting networks looking to turn a profit, this all makes perfect sense. Big names equal big audiences, and advertisers are more likely to throw cash at a podcast with an A-lister attached, as opposed to a niche series on the delights of pens or chameleon ownership (yes, both of those exist). Renay Richardson, the founder of Broccoli Productions, a London-based podcast production company, observes a “laziness” in terms of commissioning.
“Companies are reluctant to put in the work to find new audiences and bring them into podcasting,” she explains. “It’s easier to rest on established audiences rather than learning what it takes to create a new one. Whether a big network or an independent, neither know how to market a new podcast, so the answer becomes ‘Let’s put a celebrity in it and rely on their years of experience building their own brand.’”
Meanwhile, the brave new world of audio is proving a lucrative side-project for A-listers who can reportedly command fees in the millions for non-scripted pods. In the opening episode of Sorted With the Dyers, an advice series featuring the actor Danny Dyer and his reality-star daughter Dani, Dyer Sr makes no bones about his motivations: “Let’s have it right, we are earning a crust,” he says, delightedly. But being a successful actor, or comic, or even a royal escapee does not automatically make someone a good interviewer – and interviews are the dominant format in the realms of star-studded pods.
Among the many afflictions of the celebrity interview series is a reluctance to tackle difficult subjects, or to curtail dreary small talk. To listen to Kate Hudson’s podcast Sibling Revelry, in which she talks to famous siblings alongside her brother Oliver, is to hear the Hudsons chuntering on about themselves, talking over their guests and generally treating the whole enterprise like a private cocktail party. Rob Lowe’s podcast Literally!, which promises “freewheeling” conversations with his Hollywood pals, is similarly weighed down by shared reminiscences and pointless prattling. Fun for them, yes, but a yawn for the rest of us.
Similarly annoying is that the same names invariably crop up on celebrity-hosted series. Fans of the comedian Katherine Ryan will have been delighted by the arrival of her podcast series Telling Everybody Everything, although their enthusiasm could wane once they’ve heard her on Samira Ahmed’s How I Found My Voice, Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces, Brandi Glanville Unfiltered, Off Menu with Ed Gamble and James Acaster, and James O’Brien’s Full Disclosure. Indeed, inviting a celebrity pal on to your podcast seems to come with similar etiquette to middle-class dinner parties, where guests are duty-bound to ask their hosts back. Enjoyed Elizabeth Day’s appearance on Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place? You can also hear Day interviewing Cotton on her own series How to Fail. Truly, podcasting is eating itself.
This is not to say that all celebrity podcasts are awful. Grounded With Louis Theroux, which features conversations with Michaela Coel, Jon Ronson and others, is excellent, largely because its host has made a career out of interviewing people and doesn’t shrink from asking difficult questions. In the US, Alec Baldwin’s audio side-hustle Here’s the Thing is threatening to outshine his day job, with the actor proving an insightful interviewer who digs reassuringly deep. As with any heavily subscribed genre, quality inevitably varies between series. The problem is the sheer volume of podcasts all cleaving to the same format and often having the same conversations.
This celebrity obsession is creeping into other audio areas, too. An increasing feature of documentary podcasts is bringing in stars to narrate instead of using the journalists who wrote and researched them as presenters. Recent examples include Wondery’s Bunga Bunga podcast, in which the actor and comedian Whitney Cummings tells us about Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to political power in Italy; and the BBC’s Fight of the Century, about the bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, presented by the rapper Nas. The latter was presumably drafted in to give the series some sparkle, which seems an odd decision given that its subjects are among the most famous sportsmen on the planet. By parachuting in famous narrators, commissioning editors show little confidence in listeners whom they evidently feel are incapable of mustering any interest without a big name attached.
Podcasting has long been hailed as a uniquely democratic medium, meaning that anyone, famous or not, can give it a go. But making a wage or building a community around it is another matter. Whether or not the proliferation of celeb pods is stifling the competition depends on who you ask. Talk to major networks and they will invariably use the “rising tides lift all boats” metaphor, insisting that anything that brings new ears to podcasting is a good thing.
But this may be of little comfort for independent creators trying to get a foothold in a crowded industry. Helen Zaltzman, the host of Answer Me This!, a podcast which answers listeners’ questions that launched 14 years ago, says that, in some respects, starting out now would be more of a struggle “because there are millions of podcasts competing for people’s ear-time. But in some ways less so, because in 2007, we had to explain what podcasts were and how to get them and why they might want to. Discovery has always been difficult, and a problem that the podcast goldrush has yet to improve.”
Richardson argues that the problem is not market saturation, as is often claimed. “People need to stop saying that, unless they truly believe there are too many books, films, television shows and records. When the podcasting audience grows to the level of other mediums, the reliance on major celebrity content will lessen and the creativity will rise.”
In the meantime, no one is suggesting that all celebrity podcasters should hang up their mics, although, for the sake of us all, they should perhaps ask themselves a few questions before they embark on their glittering new side-project. These might include: are they a natural broadcaster? Who is their series actually for? And, if they want to chat with their mates, have they thought of picking up the phone?
Five celebrity podcasts worth a listen
The Adam Buxton Podcast
Not for nothing does the comedian Adam Buxton call his interviews “ramble chats”, with episodes on his hugely popular series often exceeding 90 minutes. Nonetheless, much like his old chum Louis Theroux, his success as a podcaster lies in his sensitive and curious interviewing style, and a varied and interesting guest list.
Ian Wright’s Everyday People
It’s celebrity-hosted, yes, but the real stars here are ordinary people who have extraordinary tales to tell. Among Wright’s interviewees is a soldier who walked 700 miles barefoot to raise money for research into an incurable genetic disease, and a Grenfell Tower survivor who set up a community kitchen and cooked her way through her trauma.
Dear Joan and Jericha
Who needs famouses having earnest chats with their mates when we can hear Julia Davis (of Nighty Night fame) and Vicki Pepperdine (Getting On) as agony aunts dispensing disdainful relationship advice? Gasp as the Derek and Clive of podcasting consider such conundrums as sagging breasts, straying spouses and the optimum way for a woman to flash her genitalia on a train.
That Clara Amfo has lots of radio experience was always going to make her a decent podcaster, but there is also a clear focus to This City, which finds its host speaking to London’s famous residents about the places that mean something to them, whether restaurants, venues or the city’s green spaces.
Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness
In the galaxy of celebrity pods, this one aims higher than most as it sees the Queer Eye star looking to broaden his intellectual horizons. With the help of guest experts, Van Ness examines art, economic equality, trans rights, the racial wealth gap, the early history of China and much more.