Written by Seth Abramovitch, Gary Baum, Kirsten Chuba, Mia Galuppo, Chris Gardner, James Hibberd, Caitlin Huston, Rebecca Keegan, Mikey O’Connell, Sydney Odman, Lacey Rose, Julian Sancton, Alex Weprin and Abbey White. Additional reporting by J. Clara Chan.
It is the best of times and the worst of times for podcasting. In 2023, the industry put the brakes on a period of lavish spending and nine-digit megadeals and — much as its streaming counterparts did last year — followed largesse with austerity. Facing challenges surrounding the advertising model, macroeconomic concerns and a post-pandemic slowdown, some of the biggest players, including Spotify, Vox Media and NPR, announced mass layoffs. Many others — like SiriusXM and Amazon — cut their podcast budgets significantly. And yet, unlike in other struggling segments of the entertainment business, audiences are continuing to grow with no ceiling in sight. According to an analysis by Edison Research, “Podcasting is ‘back,’ reaching the highest numbers ever, with 90 million listeners each week.” Another study, by iHeart Media, suggests that expansion has chipped away time spent on streaming and social media. And with upward of 3 million podcasts on offer, more people are listening to more content than at any time since the heyday of radio. (Even as much of it is increasingly released in video form, as well.) The power players listed here are those best poised to take advantage of this paradoxical moment. — EDITED BY JULIAN SANCTON
John Allen (MrBallen Podcast; Ballen Studios)
Allen, the Navy SEAL turned content guru best known as MrBallen, has enough going on that someone could do a podcast about his business ventures. Among the past year’s highlights: an exclusive, three-year content deal with Amazon Music (home to his MrBallen Podcast: Strange, Dark and Mysterious Stories); creating and launching MrBallen’s Medical Mysteries this fall; and planned expansion into TV, film, books and games.
Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes (SmartLess; Smartless Media)
Birthed during the pandemic, SmartLess, the podcast from the three famous funnymen, has spawned a nationwide live tour, a Max docuseries and a full-scale media company. The latter quickly lined up a slate of original podcasts, including Bad Dates, hosted by Jameela Jamil; Owned with Rex Chapman; and the rewatch pod Just Jack & Will, with Hayes and his Will & Grace co-star Eric McCormack. (For many of the rewatch, recap and companion podcasts on this list, hosts are pivoting away from discussing current and past work, per SAG-AFTRA rules during the strike.)
Michael Barbaro, Sabrina Tavernise (The Daily)
The New York Times podcast, which features 20-minute interviews with Times journalists and others about the biggest stories of the day — from wildfires to Supreme Court decisions — and longer Sunday features, regularly tops the podcast charts and inspires devotion to its even-keeled co-hosts Barbaro and Tavernise.
Chuck Bryant, Josh Clark (Stuff You Should Know)
Among the first big podcast acquisitions — Stuff Media sold to iHeartMedia in 2018 for a reported $55 million — Clark and Bryant’s funny, informative show is also among the genre’s longest-running. (The first episode dropped in April 2008.) Each of its more than 2,000 episodes goes deep on a different subject — from champagne to the Stonewall Uprising to chaos theory — but it’s the hosts, not their eclectic interests, who’ve retained the loyal audience of millions.
Emma Chamberlain (Anything Goes)
Chamberlain — who first achieved fame with her YouTube channel, now at 12 million subscribers — launched Anything Goes in 2019, holding forth on relationships, mental health, fashion and more from the comfort of her bed. In November 2022, she signed an exclusive, multiyear deal with Spotify, which included an expansion into video content for the podcast and a return to her vlog-style roots; Spotify said in March that her show has more than doubled in listenership since moving over to the audio giant in February 2023.
Alex Cooper (Call Her Daddy)
Second only in Spotify listeners to Joe Rogan, Call Her Daddy bills itself as the “most listened to podcast by women” on the platform — which paid $60 million for the streaming rights in 2021. Born at Barstool Sports and hosted by the 28-year-old influencer, the pod — which averages 5 million listeners — has evolved into a sex-positive feminist forum where celebrity guests like Zayn, in his first major interview in years, will drop by for a headline-making discussion.
Audie Cornish (The Assignment)
Cornish joined CNN from NPR last year in part to rejuvenate the venerable news organization’s audio journalism business. As the host of The Assignment, she has delivered. The weekly series, which sees Cornish interview people whose lives intersect with the news cycle (recent guests have included TikTok creators, astrologers and flight attendants), won the best interview podcast category at the 2023 Ambies, amid tough competition.
Amanda Doyle, Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach (We Can Do Hard Things)
Best-selling Untamed author-activist Glennon Doyle, with her attorney sister Amanda and soccer Olympian wife Wambach, attract several million “podsquad” listeners weekly for conversations on topics like mental health, parenting and sex. High-profile 2023 guests have included Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, and Megan Rapinoe, but the show’s defining moments this year have come from episodes where Glennon talks about her recent diagnosis of anorexia, in a sign that this pod’s real power is in its rare level of intimacy.
DJ EFN, N.O.R.E. (Drink Champs)
Co-hosts N.O.R.E. and DJ EFN have found their rhythm in a new studio home in Miami’s Wynwood arts district after years of moving around, and that stability couldn’t have come at a better time. With week-to-week production now fine-tuned, the duo are primed to take their signature banter and inspired, inebriated interviews with hip-hop’s legends and more to a wider audience amid the genre’s 50th anniversary year.
Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor (Pod Save America; Crooked Media)
The trio of former senior-level Obama White House staffers started Crooked Media in 2017, naming their podcasting company after one of Donald Trump’s enemy-of-the-people epithets. Their brand soon became — and remains, into the Biden era — a locus for liberal resistance politics, centered on their chatty Pod Save America show and supplemented by live events, video programming and newsletters.
Ashley Flowers (Crime Junkie; audiochuck)
In the past year, the host of the hit true-crime series Crime Junkie and founder of podcast network audiochuck has expanded her award-winning audio empire, making further inroads to what she calls an “emerging industry with not a lot of rules and no set path to success.” Among major new projects is The Deck Investigates, a spinoff of her other crime series, The Deck.
Gillie Da King, Wallo (Million Dollaz Worth of Game)
The Barstool Sports podcast — a weekly show hosted by Philadelphia rapper and actor Gillie Da King and social media influencer Wallo, who riff on music and life advice — has consistently appeared at the top of the music podcast charts, averaging 500,000 views and downloads per episode. Recent guests have included Michael B. Jordan, Alicia Keys, Kevin Hart, Nick Cannon and Lil Dicky, after the duo signed an extension with Barstool in the fall of 2022 worth a rumored $100 million.
Georgia Hardstark, Karen Kilgariff (My Favorite Murder)
Kilgariff and Hardstark’s show has tackled both infamous and lesser-known crimes across more than 700 episodes since 2016. The hosts’ macabre wit has exploded their audience to more than 30 million listeners a month, and last year Amazon shelled out a reported $100 million for a mere one-week exclusive window for new episodes. Clearly, Kilgariff and Hardstark are killing it.
Ashleigh Kelley, Alaina Urquhart (Morbid)
On Morbid, Urquhart, an autopsy technician, and Kelley, a hairdresser, approach grisly crimes with lighthearted flair. The aunt-niece duo, who often refer to each other as sisters, launched their own podcast network under the Wondery umbrella in 2012. Morbid Network now houses five podcasts with a similar spooky spin. Morbid proves again and again the in-demand appetite for true-crime content, ranking in the top 20 podcasts on Spotify and Apple.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Wiser Than Me)
The Emmy-winning actress had found herself wondering, “Why the hell don’t we hear more from older women?” So she set out to change that, launching her first podcast, Wiser Than Me. Each episode features Louis-Dreyfus in conversation with a famous woman over 70, candidly discussing how to navigate such things as aging and how to lead a full life. Her guest roster on the Lemonada Media-produced pod has included Jane Fonda, Carol Burnett and Isabel Allende.
Rachel Maddow (Déjà News)
The MSNBC host stepped back from hosting her show five nights a week to focus on other ventures, podcasts being a big one. Last year’s Ultra podcast, on the history of far-right extremism in America, was quickly snatched up by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin for a possible adaptation. Her latest project, Rachel Maddow Presents: Déjà News, which she hosts alongside producer Isaac-Davy Aronson, shot to No. 1 on the Apple podcast charts after its release in June.
Conan O’Brien (Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend; Team Coco)
The former talk show host has found a second, thriving phase to his career with Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, his consistently chart-topping interview show that has welcomed guests including Harrison Ford, Paul McCartney and Billie Eilish. In May 2022, O’Brien’s company Team Coco was acquired by SiriusXM in a $150 million deal, which includes a five-year talent agreement with the comedian and acquisition of Team Coco’s other shows, including Nicole Byer’s Why Won’t You Date Me? and J.B. Smoove’s May I Elaborate?
Joe Rogan (The Joe Rogan Experience)
Fellow podcaster Kara Swisher recently referred to Rogan as “the nation’s earworm,” which data seems to support. With The Joe Rogan Experience reportedly averaging 11 million listeners per episode, it’s regularly the No. 1 podcast on U.S. charts. Since the comedian and MMA fanatic inked a $100 million-plus deal at Spotify in 2020, he’s continued to court headline-making guests and controversy, as he weighs in on thorny subjects like COVID vaccines, President Joe Biden’s health and the Bud Light boycotts.
Ben Shapiro (The Ben Shapiro Podcast)
The conservative podcaster and Daily Wire entrepreneur is routinely among the top 10 podcasts in the U.S. And unlike many other commentary shows on that list, Shapiro’s personality-driven program did not benefit from having a brand-name news organization behind it. From the culture wars (a recent episode was titled “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Barbie for 43 minutes”), to the 2024 election, Shapiro has a young audience on the right (including 6.1 million YouTube subscribers) that would make Fox News jealous.
Bill Simmons (The Bill Simmons Podcast; The Ringer)
In the three and a half years since Spotify forked over $250 million to acquire The Ringer, its founder and chief personality, Bill Simmons, has continued to add podcasts and don more hats. In fact, in addition to his role as managing director of The Ringer — a network with more than 50 pods as well as a website, video, docs and live events — he also serves as head of podcast innovation and monetization at Spotify. Simmons still hosts a handful of popular podcasts, too, including his eponymous pod, which recently released its 1,000th episode.
Kara Swisher (Pivot; On; Succession Podcast)
An omnipresent pundit in aviator sunglasses — she is sensitive to bright light, if not the proverbial spotlight — Swisher has seen her profile rise in the podcast era, thanks to her must-listen, finger-on-the-pulse takes on the digital era. Catch her weighing in on everything from Elon Musk to Barbenheimer on Vox Media’s Pivot, co-hosted by NYU’s Scott Galloway; grilling notables on New York magazine’s On With Kara Swisher; and conducting incisive postmortems on HBO’s Succession Podcast.
ACAST (Ross Adams, Tiffany Ashitey and Shantae Howell)
The Swedish company, born in 2014 as a dynamic-ad delivery service for podcasts, has evolved into a major platform and publisher in its own right, hosting more than 100,000 podcasts that draw 1.3 billion listeners a quarter, according to the company. Acast — led by CEO Adams; managing director, U.S., Ashitey; and exec producer and creative director Howell — has extended its reach among U.S. audiences thanks to recent acquisitions of hit podcasts like WTF With Marc Maron and The Young Turks, as well as partnerships with Amazon and Higher Ground.
AUDACY (J.D. Crowley, Jenna Weiss-Berman)
Formerly known as Radio.com, the audio platform has brought several prestigious podcast studios under its wing, including Pineapple Street Studios (Missing Richard Simmons) and Cadence13 (which recently inked a 30-episode deal with Amy Poehler). But perhaps the company’s most encouraging move is its promotion this year of Pineapple Street co-founder Weiss-Berman to executive vp podcasts, reporting to Audacy’s podcast chief, Crowley.
AUDIBLE (Rachel Ghiazza, Zola Mashariki)
The Amazon-owned podcast and audiobook powerhouse has continued its run of high-profile deals, signing new partnerships in the past year with Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, and Viola Davis’ Ashé Audio Ventures. The company also launched a new podcast in February with Michelle Obama, the first in its multiyear deal with the Obamas’ Higher Ground.
HIGHER GROUND AUDIO (Dan Fierman)
This past year saw the audio branch of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground go from startup to true business, doubling its team size and pivoting from Spotify to new partnerships with Audible and Acast. With a continued focus on crafting unique shows for underserved audiences, the company is producing podcasts that fill the “massive amount of white space” in the medium, says head of audio Fierman, and finding continued success in the notion that “good, durable shows work because they’re good, not because they’re on trend.”
iHEART (Conal Byrne, Will Pearson)
iHeartMedia’s podcast division, with a talent stable that includes Charlamagne tha God, Will Ferrell and Shonda Rhimes, draws nearly 32 million listeners a month — pacing well ahead of its closest publishing rival, Wondery. Led by Byrne and Pearson, the outfit is also bucking the more fatigued advertising landscape. Second-quarter earnings, reported Aug. 8, had podcasting revenue up 13 percent to $97 million. That’s roughly 10 percent of the media brand’s total haul.
LIONSGATE SOUND (Gretchen Stockdale, Nicholas Caprio)
Scamanda — a true-crime podcast that exposes a California woman who faked cancer for almost a decade and swindled donors out of $105,513 for her “treatment” — became a sensation upon its May 15 debut, repeatedly topping the Apple Podcast charts and turning its journalist host, Charlie Webster, into an overnight star. The first bona fide hit from Lionsgate’s new audio division — specifically its Pilgrim Media Group, headed by Caprio and Stockdale — Scamanda was produced with adaptations in mind, so keep your eyes peeled for docs and dramatizations to come.
THE NEW YORK TIMES (Sam Dolnick)
Dolnick oversees Times Digital products, including such powerhouse podcasts as The Ezra Klein Show, and helped revolutionize the media podcast game when he launched The Daily in 2017 — inspiring major media outlets around the globe to similarly debut their own weekday podcasts. Since then, he’s also rolled out the FX/Hulu series The New York Times Presents, initially conceived as a spinoff of The Daily.
NPR (Anya Grundmann)
March’s 10 percent staff cuts hit NPR’s podcasts hard, with original series Invisibilia, Louder Than a Riot, Rough Translation and Everyone and Their Mom getting the ax, but the public media company remains an unrivaled force in audio entertainment in news. With evergreen draws such as Code Switch, It’s Been a Minute and strike-proof dad-joke factory Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, NPR output dominates podcast charts. And, as the 2024 presidential race ramps up, The NPR Politics Podcast will again be destination listening for millions of Americans.
PUSHKIN (Jacob Weisberg)
Though Weisberg — who co-founded the company with best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell in 2018 — recalls the year gone by as a time when “podcasting came down to Earth,” Pushkin is still shooting for the stars. In addition to building its subscription business, Pushkin teamed with legend Sir Paul McCartney on McCartney: A Life in Lyrics (debuting Sept. 20).
SIRIUSXM (Scott Greenstein, Adam Sachs)
Greenstein pioneered digital radio giant SiriusXM’s aggressive moves into podcasting and, in March, brought aboard Team Coco president Sachs to lead programming efforts after acquiring Team Coco itself in 2022. While the company has had some recent challenges (significant layoffs, and shuttering its Stitcher app), Greenstein and Sachs control one the largest podcast publishers in the business, with titles such as the Gold Minds With Kevin Hart podcast.
SONY (Steve Ackerman, Emily Rasekh)
The pair’s achievements in the past year included continuing to grow its subscription channel The Binge; launching Dinner’s on Me, in which host Jesse Tyler Ferguson has broken bread with guests like Jim Parsons, Tracee Ellis Ross and Roy Choi; and seeing their eight-episode podcast Chameleon: Wild Boys win podcast of the year at the Ambies.
SPOTIFY (Sahar Elhabashi, Julie McNamara, Maya Prohovnik)
As the top U.S. podcast platform and publisher, according to Edison Research, the audio giant — which grew even bigger after absorbing Gimlet and Parcast media — was hit hard by industrywide headwinds. Despite several rounds of layoffs this year, Spotify still boasts some of the most popular (and expensive) names in the business, including Joe Rogan and Alex Cooper, and continues to invest in marquee talent, such as Trevor Noah, whose podcast premieres on the Stockholm-based service later this year.
Tenderfoot TV (Donald Albright, Payne Lindsey)
Tenderfoot TV’s approach to bold, intimate storytelling across genres and media has been bolstered this year by their doubling down on the subscription service Tenderfoot+ — “an evolution not only in our content strategy but also our business strategy,” according to president and co-founder Albright. Meanwhile, widespread fascination with UFOs and UAPs helped make Tenderfoot’s long-gestating series High Strange an unlikely, perfectly timed hit.
TREEFORT (Kelly Garner, Lisa Ammerman)
The podcast studio has worked with the biggest players in podcasting, including Audible, Spotify, iHeartMedia and Wondery/Amazon. Their series range from nonfiction to audio-drama, including podcasts with Ethan Hawke and Marcia Gay Harden. The company led by CEO-founder Garner and co-founder/head of content Ammerman is also enlisted by top entertainment companies to produce companion pieces to series and features like Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story Mini-Doc.
VOX MEDIA (Nishat Kurwa, Ray Chao)
The company’s podcast execs oversee a slate that includes Kara Swisher’s On, Max Linsky and Evan Ratliff’s Longform podcast, and Vox’s daily news podcast, Today, Explained. Chao, Vox’s general manager of audio who also oversees the digital video business, has brought in name brand talent like Swisher and Sam Sanders, while vp and executive producer of audio Kurwa works closely with the company’s other brands, like New York magazine, to grow their audio efforts.
WONDERY (Jen Sargent, Marshall Lewy)
The podcast studio, which is owned by Amazon and has produced streamer-adapted hits such as WeCrashed and Dr. Death, continues to see its stories jump to the screen, with the launch of the Max series of smash-hit podcast SmartLess after its live tour. The company also saw great success at the Ambies with four wins, the most of any studio, including trophies for podcasts Business Wars and Scamfluencers.
Ben Davis + Marissa Hurwitz (WME)
Podcast heavyweights Dax Shepard, the guys over at Crooked Media and Brett Goldstein turn to these reps to help them navigate the ups and downs of the podcasting space. This year, Hurwitz helped millennial relationship guru Tinx clinch her Sirius XM’s Stitcher deal to launch It’s Me, Tinx, while Davis recently landed internet phenom Bobbi Althoff and her The Really Good Podcast.
Caroline Edwards + Josh Lindgren (CAA)
Lindgren, who has been head of CAA’s podcast department since March 2021, counts chart-toppers like Stuff You Should Know and NPR’s Ari Shapiro as clients, and has previously done deals for SmartLess, Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Comet Pictures. Podcast agent Edwards reps Morgan Givens’ Flyest Fables, Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers’ Pantsuit Politics, as well as stars Jesse Tyler Ferguson, John Stamos, Alan Cumming, Tig Notaro and Karamo Brown in their podcast ventures.
Oren Rosenbaum (UTA)
As partner and head of audio at UTA, Rosenbaum leads a team — including agents A.J. Leone and Shelby Schenkman — that reps several well-known podcast networks and creators, including Wondery, iHeart Media, Pineapple Street, Tenderfoot TV, Alex Cooper of Call Her Daddy, Jake Brennan of Disgraceland and Guy Raz of How I Built This.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.