Home » Sabbatical Series: Will Sommer, Week 2 of 5

Sabbatical Series: Will Sommer, Week 2 of 5

Notes on Conservative Podcasts, By Will Sommer 

In August, an unlikely podcast snagged the top spot on the Apple Podcast News and Politics charts  — one that didn’t have anything to do with Chapo Trap House or Crooked Media. And unlike the most talked-about podcasts of the Trump era, this one, ”The Ben Shapiro Show,” was a distinctly right-wing affair.

Shapiro has come a long way since his teen years, when he made his name as an early-aughts answer to Alex P. Keaton who talked, a lot, about how he wouldn’t have sex until marriage. Now Shapiro runs a budding podcast empire on the right, with the podcasts under the umbrella of his conservative website the Daily Wire regularly making it into the more public strata of the Apple Podcast rankings.

Shapiro isn’t the only right-wing personality cultivating a podcast operation off a profile built on more prominent outlets like Fox News or Breitbart. There appears to be a growing, inter-linked conservative podcast ecosystem emerging in the shadow of traditional right-wing talk radio and Fox News infrastructures and in spite the GOP’s older-leaning demographics, whose potential podcast listenership is limited given that age group’s general frictions with technology.

While Donald Trump’s presidency has shaken up the GOP — and draws more attention to the ideologically scattered, frequently bigoted “alt-right” movement — this growing contingent of right-wing podcasts tends to trend more toward a more traditional National Review-style of conservatism. Which is to say, while far-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones may be getting broader media attention these days, among right-wing podcasts it seems that Shapiro’s brand of #NeverTrump, William F. Buckley-style conservatism rules. It’s increasingly uncommon to find spaces within right-wing media where criticism of Trump can flourish (or at least a place where Trump can be avoided), but in this medium where the economics allow for shows to be successful with a smaller (and younger) listener base, there seems to be less pressure to keep up with all things Trump; what he did today, how he’s changing his supporters’ politics, so on and so forth. This stands in contrast to what has followed from the pressures that emerged within the conventional right-wing talk radio ecosystem. (Longtime talk radio host John Ziegler, for example, who quit his show last year, complained frequently about how criticizing Trump meant alienating his conservative listeners and ensuing ratings suicide.)

This isn’t to say that conservative podcasts are totally unlike the rest of right-wing media, of course, particularly when it comes to how the bills get paid. Many of the ads are still the same — you know, meal kits for the apocalypse, stuff like that. (Although, there are noticeably fewer gold scam ads.) But these shows are also taking on the various business model experimentations happening elsewhere in the medium; like successful podcasts on the other end of the ideological spectrum, there is some focus on promoting premium content through paid membership clubs.

Shapiro looms over conservative podcasting, building off a career as a pundit that he’s been building for more than a decade, along with regular appearances across principally digital conservative media. Shapiro has even benefited from the rise of left-wing “antifascist” protesters, who have organized against his speeches on college campuses and, as a result, sometimes bubbles him up towards national media attention. It could be argued that some non-Republicans might find Shapiro’s views comparatively palatable for 2017, like if Karl Rove had come of age in the Soundcloud era. His ardent anti-Trumpism — he quit Breitbart in 2016 after over the site’s response to Trump campaign manager allegedly assaulting Breitbart reporter reporter Michelle Fields — has arguably made him one of the country’s most prominent #NeverTrump media figures.

Shapiro’s Daily Wire has two other near-daily podcasts that occasionally rank highly on the charts: “The Andrew Klavan Show” and “The Michael Knowles Show.” Klavan’s attempt at jokes tend to prove the old saw that conservative comedy is an oxymoron, while Knowles — whose publication of “Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide,” a book that was mostly blank, earned a Trump shout-out — features mostly solid news of the day and interviews with righty up-and-comers.

Like a lot of people making it big in podcasts, Shapiro’s broadcast style might not have made it 20 years ago on traditional talk radio. At his worst, he comes off like a high school student at a debate tournament: a little too nasally, a little too fast, and a little too quick to show off his references.

Still, there’s a bit of charm in there. Even Ira Glass, no one’s idea of a typical talk radio listener, tweeted last week that he’s a fan. “I really like listening to @BenShapiro,” Glass wrote. “He’s interesting. I’ve learned things.”

It’s hard to judge, precisely, just how successful Shapiro’s on-demand audio efforts are in concrete terms. This is podcasting, after all. (Shapiro and co. didn’t respond to requests for comment.) But between the show’s high placements and Shapiro’s media brand somewhat gaining traction within the broader media landscape, even these abstractions of success are worth some attention.

Some observations about other parts of the right-wing ecosystem worth mentioning:

  • If Shapiro runs the leading podcast equivalent of a traditional talk radio show, comedian-slash-prankster Stephen Crowder has the GOP’s leading morning zoo-esque gabfest with “Louder with Crowder.” Crowder, who made his name as a conservative comedian during the Obama years and was an early pioneer of getting punched by left-wing demonstrators, isn’t a rabid Trump fan. But his methods — one “prank” recently featured him threatening to call ICE on day laborers — straddle the line of the extreme.

  • There are some prominent right-wing podcasts that bear more recognizable names, like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin or even Alex Jones. In most cases, these podcasts are mostly just stashed recordings of their broadcasts buoyed to the top by name recognition and nation-wide station reach. These efforts generally feel like afterthoughts — Rush Limbaugh boasted a few week that he doesn’t include his podcast ratings in rating compilations, since his terrestrial numbers are so big the podcast numbers don’t really matter. As a result, the major right-wing outlets have been slow to get into podcasts, leaving the field open for conservatives looking to explore the medium beyond just reproducing talk radio — and for established pundits launching their own outside efforts. (Let’s not forget Bill O’Reilly jumping into podcasting after being dismissed from Fox News.)

  • A word on the “alt-right”: they don’t seem to be hugely popular, comparatively-speaking, but one could argue these podcasts play a huge role in white supremacist right. From my work covering them, there is some evidence that a few white nationalists have turned to podcasts as a channel of outreach; for what it’s worth, I saw some of the leading white supremacist podcasters address their fans in Charlottesville. This makes some sense: with no access to traditional radio or television and increasingly banned from hosting services and social media sites, these folks need alternate and relatively ungoverned spaces to build their platforms. Just as neo-Nazi websites are increasingly only available through Tor browsers and the dark web, though, these podcasts are mostly kept off the usual distribution platforms. [Ed. noteThis NY Daily News piece is relevant.]

It’s not clear to me whether conservative podcasts can support more than a few prominent personalities, or if those successful right-wing podcasters will focus on building out their podcast operations should the prospect of a contract at one of the vastly more monied traditional conservative media platforms emerge. (For most, big immediate paydays are certainly more appealing than scraping Patreon dollars today for a potential bigger tomorrow, after all.)

But I think a future with a more robust conservative podcast presence is definite possible. Instead of looking for mass reach, such podcasts are most useful to the right as a place to develop niche voices that can get by with smaller audiences. And that’s not nothing.

Will Sommer is the campaign editor for The Hill, based in Washington DC. He also writes Right Richter, a newsletter about trends in right-wing media, of which I’m a reader and a fan. Also, the dude recapped Narcos for Vulture. You can find him on Twitter at @WillSommer.

And he’s really great to work with!