Conservatives learned long ago how to use what were once new media — talk radio and cable television — to mobilize activists. Now they’re diving into podcasting, aiming to lure a younger generation that has largely eluded them.
Liberals got to the millennial podcast audience first, thanks to Pod Save America, Rachel Maddow and others who racked up big numbers with a younger audience as they railed against President Donald Trump and a Republican policy agenda.
But in just the last few months, conservatives have begun launching and promoting shows, seeing podcasts as an inexpensive and technologically easy way to reach new voters and political workers.
“You can elevate attention to issues and ideas that will probably not appear on the front page of the New York Times anytime soon,” said Jim Geraghty, senior political correspondent for the National Review and co-host of the conservative “Three Martini Lunch” podcast.
That’s why, when Danielle Crittenden was trying to find a way to talk about women’s issues in the post-#MeToo era, she asked her 20-something children how to best reach that generation.
“They’re not going to read books about this, but they are all listening to podcasts,” she found.
So “Femsplainers” was born, a podcast hosted by Crittenden and Christina Hoff Sommers. Today it’s listed by Townhall.com as of the top 20 conservative podcasts.
Their style is typical of this new breed of podcasts. They have a cocktail or wine during the show. Their programs are not the flame-throwing, name-calling melees often identified with conservative talk radio and cable television. They often try to stay away from partisan politics altogether.
The conservative podcasts can feature hosts and guests sitting by a fire, commenting on their dog’s habits and talking in paragraphs as they methodically build arguments and try to win over listeners in a friendly way.
They have an instant star in Ben Shapiro. The 35-year-old former Breitbart editor-at-large hosts one of the nation’s most popular podcasts, giving his conservative views on current events.
Shapiro is editor of The Daily Wire, which bills itself as an “irreverent news and commentary site for a new generation of conservatives.” He routinely tries to build arguments with talking points and data.
“I think Shapiro does well because he gets it. Despite his format, his show isn’t a conservative talk radio show repackaged as a podcast,” said Michelle Cordero, host of “Heritage Explains,” a weekly podcast from the conservative Heritage Foundation that breaks down policy issues at a basic level.
Shapiro has soared because he’s not only attracted the younger demographic but has methodically built his brand. He was writing a syndicated column as a teenager. He got notice for his books, including “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth,” which was published when he was 20, and another alleging many in Hollywood were promoting a liberal agenda.
Shapiro’s show in January ranked sixth among all podcasts, trailing the top-rated “The Daily” from The New York Times; “This American Life,” the public radio show and podcast; “Stuff You Should Know” from iHeartRadio and “Up First” and “TED Radio Hour” from NPR, according to Podtrac.
Conservatives for years have benefited from being more adept at talk radio and cable television. But those audiences skew older.
During the week of Feb. 18-24, conservative Sean Hannity’s 9 p.m. Fox News Channel show ranked 3rd (Wednesday) and 4th (Thursday) for the week in total viewers among all cable TV programs with about 3.5 million viewers per night. Also cracking the top 25 were shows hosted by conservative talkers Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson.
Among liberals, Rachel Maddow’s programs were among the best viewed. Last Wednesday, her show edged Hannity in total viewers. None of the talk shows, though, was in the top 25 programs watched by viewers 18 to 49 during the last two weeks. The data were reported by TV By the Numbers.
That’s why conservatives are now slowly building support among the younger demographic with podcasts, and the more relaxed format is seen as an important way for building that audience.
“What many listeners appreciate about the podcast format is that it seems to be a refuge from all the yelling. Unlike talk radio or cable news shows, we are one of the few spaces where smart, reasonable dialogue happens, without talking points, and often between people who disagree politically,” said Madeline Orr Osburn, producer of “The Federalist Radio Hour,” a daily podcast.
Shapiro offers that conversational approach. After Trump’s two-hour, two-minute speech at Saturday’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Shapiro offered an intense analysis during his 53-minute Monday podcast.
“The more you see of him the more you realize that he just sucks the oxygen out of the room,” Shapiro said affectionately.
He was optimistic about Trump’s chances at re-election next year. “Nothing guarantees you re-election, but he is so adept at garnering attention to himself that it makes it difficult to think of anyone else in the race,” Shapiro said. He then discussed how difficult it is to unseat an incumbent president.
Later, he took on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat and favorite conservative target, charging, “She is not a smart human.”
Other podcasts have a more easygoing style. Conservative talk show commentator Dennis Prager hosts a “fireside chat” that’s so informal he began his Feb. 26 program talking about how the podcast was “a wonderful way to get to, so to speak, know each other.” is dog Otto was nearby, snoring.
Prager then made a point about Trump’s comment in last month’s State of the Union address that “all Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before.” Democrats and Republicans erupted in cheers.
But, Prager asked, “Why is more women in the workforce something to cheer?”
He noted, “Maybe it’s not a source of pride. How many women are in the workforce who want to be in the workforce? Isn’t that relevant?”
To help prod the budding conservative podcast network, Cordero led an “activist boot camp” session at last week’s CPAC gathering. The seminar attracted about 50 people.
Part of her advice was that podcasting isn’t as easy as it seems. Put some thought into the podcast’s name, she advised. Invite guests who will then invite you on their podcast. Pick guests with large social media followings and be strategic about how you share your podcast on your own social media accounts.
Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution, has found it’s too soon to say how much direct impact the podcasts will eventually have on campaigns or the national debate.
But the potential is there. Just make sure the podcast is easy to access and absorb, said Fritz Brogan, who conducted another seminar at the CPAC conference. Brogan is national co-chairman of Maverick PAC, which advises young conservative candidates.
Remember, he said: “Podcasts are increasingly popular because it’s something easy to do while multi-tasking. One can learn about campaigns and policy while on the Metro, exercise bike or at your desk.”