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The most popular episode of one of the most popular religion podcasts begins with a sound check: “Check one-two, we’re ready to go.”
That Sounds Fun podcast host Annie F. Downs and her guest, comedian John Crist, are recording in her father’s office, surrounded by boxes of tax returns, forced to share one microphone. For the next hour and a half, the two drift, as close friends would, from lighthearted jabs to the deep and serious, from their complicated dating lives as Christian celebrities to their respective rehab visits.
Such unscripted goofiness may sound strange to some, but it’s won Downs many fans. Last year, listeners downloaded her relatable coffee-talk show more than 6 million times. It regularly sits in the Top 20 of 92,000 active podcasts in the Religion category—the largest category in the podcasting industry by far, according to podcasting publishers Blubrry and Libsyn.
Blubrry says downloads in the Religion category have increased by 85 percent over the last 10 years—but just what are people hearing? For the last several months, I’ve turned myself into a podcast junkie, sampling 50 different shows, mostly in the Religion category. Here’s what I learned.
1) Don’t expect religion podcasts to convert anyone.
Most listeners download podcasts for the same reason they subscribe to magazines like WORLD. They’re enthusiasts who care about a particular topic, worldview, or storyteller. Rob Walch, vice president of podcaster relations at Libsyn, says comparing podcasts to radio is a mistake: “Podcasts are made for niches,” while most broadcast radio is for a broad audience. Most of the religion podcasts I listened to presume you’re a Christian who knows the territory. Christian podcasters Jeff and Alyssa Bethke say some episodes of their The Real Life podcast “might be about a fight we just had, … potty training, … or eschatological realism.”
2) Don’t expect the irreligious podcasts to convert anyone either.
Turns out podcasts are a great place for post-Christian millennials to find their tribe too. Shows like The BadChristian Podcast, Rob Bell’s The RobCast, and Snarky Faith feed off of modern millennial distaste for Biblical views on homosexuality, the role of women, and social justice. But where they steer listeners is never very clear.
3) Podcasts are rough around the edges, unless you’re Albert Mohler.
That’s because 99 percent of podcasts work on shoestring budgets by independent podcasters with no production teams, according to Blubrry CEO Todd Cochrane. The same is true of religion podcasts. Annie F. Downs, the host who interviewed John Crist in her dad’s office, said she personally financed and produced That Sounds Fun when it began four years ago, and only hired a producer a year and a half ago.
The Briefing is a neat and tidy exception, hosted by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President (and World News Group board member) Albert Mohler, who offers a well-voiced reflection on the day’s headlines trimmed to under 30 minutes. Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing also strives for pith and polish by offering wisdom in 20 minutes or less. Many other podcasts aren’t like Mohler’s or Freeman’s, though—episode lengths fluctuate wildly, hosts overshare during long tangents, and conversations are left unbleeped.
Strangely, two-hour-plus podcasts are very popular across the board, but Libsyn’s Walch says podcasters shouldn’t assume their audiences will stay: “Don’t do long to do long. We like to joke, ‘There’s no such thing as too long. Just too boring.’”
Juliana Erikson's favoritesSerial (WBEZ Chicago) Unbelieveable? (Justin Brierley) Freakonomics Radio (Stephen J. Dubner) StartUp (Gimlet Media) The World and Everything in It (WORLD News Group)
Marvin Olasky's favoritesThe World and Everything in It (WORLD News Group) The Briefing (Albert Mohler) Christ Covenant Church (Kevin DeYoung sermons) Conversations With Tyler (economist Tyler Cowen) Revisionist History (Malcolm Gladwell)
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