Though they’ve been around for 20 years or so, podcasts, in a lot of ways, still feel like a relatively new form of media. Starting as a simple way for RSS feeds to empower a mechanism by which we listen to audio, they now encompass a billion-dollar industry with a show or episode for seemingly everyone under the sun. But which podcast is the most popular?
Some of that rise in podcast popularity is because the barrier to entry is minimal (grab a mic, record and publish). But it’s also grown almost exponentially because major names and brands have entered the space as well.
But because podcasts exist in so many places, are tracked in a number of different ways, have varying publishing schedules and don’t all operate under a single platform, tracking downloads and true popularity of a podcast isn’t exactly a true science yet.
First off, some publishers/ podcasts simply don’t make their download/ listener numbers public to anyone outside of, presumably, potential advertisers. Some podcast networks like The Ringer and Gimlet Media were recently purchased by Spotify who undoubtedly will guard those numbers closely. Additionally, podcasts don’t all release on the same schedule. Some are put out daily, others weekly and some just produce a single “season” of a set amount of episodes. And finally, the platforms themselves, like Apple, Spotify, Stitcher and more don’t publicly release their data either.
Even aggregators like Podtrac require publishers to opt into their metrics and software to track downloads, and many don’t.
So yes, finding out the “The Most Popular” podcasts isn’t an exact science. But using some other published numbers, some interviews here and there and some other sleuthing we can being seeing what the very top of the industry looks like. These are the top podcasts in the world…
The Joe Rogan Experience
Joe Rogan is fast becoming the “face” of podcasting. His unofficial numbers have the show looking at something like 200 million downloads/ streams a month. Rogan’s is a daily show in which he interviews everyone from presidential hopefuls like Bernie Sanders, thought-leaders, pot-smoking titans of industry, health experts and much more. They tend to range into long-form interviews and Rogan has proven himself adept at having conversations with just about anyone imaginable.
The Daily ranks second on Sticher’s top shows (behind Rogan) and first on Podtrac’s. Total downloads, at this point, likely well exceed 2 million per day with more than 10 million uniques. These numbers could make it more “popular” than Rogan’s. Sponsored by the New York Times and hosted by Michael Barbaro, The Daily covers the news of the day based on New York Times reporting.
The Adam Carolla Show
Carolla is often considered the “godfather” of podcasting. He was one of the first big names to enter the space, produces a daily show entirely on his own network and even claims fame to the Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Downloaded Podcast”. In 2019 he inked a deal with PodcastOne that estimated a rough number of one million per ep or even up to 60 million per month. Where his podcast gets tricky in popularity, is that he actually runs a network of podcasts on Carolla Digital including The Adam and Dr. Drew, Carcast, Ace on the House and many more. If the network were the benchmark, then the downloads for the Carolla brand are much likely the highest in the industry.
Crime Junkie is a good example of why podcasting is both an easily penetrable industry and also difficult to figure out popularity. On the former, the host Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat, who produce shows about true crime mysteries, were a couple of friends who decided to research and record about different crime stories that interested them. It’s become incredibly popular over the first two years of production. According to Podcast Insights, it’s the fifth-most popular podcast. But where that gets tricky is in this case popularity is based on Apple’s podcast rankings which are “based on new subscribers, (and) weighted for recency”. So yes, Crime Junkies is crushing it, 11th on Stitcher, but for Apple Podcasts their rise up the ranks actually vaults them over other shows.
The Ben Shapiro Show
The sometimes controversial Shapiro publishes his podcast through his website, The Daily Wire. The show is right-wing political in nature with the host a staunch conservative who often discusses how his Orthodox Jewish background informs his political stances. He’s been in the news often for appearances at various colleges and having firm stances on a number of the most hot-button political topics. Westwood One reported Shapiro’s Monday-Friday daily show to have in the neighborhood of 15 million downloads. But it’s worth mentioning here that Westwood One also syndicates the show on more than 200 terrestrial radio stations. These numbers aren’t factored into the “downloads” and imply a much larger reach.
The Dateline NBC podcast is hosted by Keith Morrison and is produced daily to reflect much of the content on the Dateline NBC which airs once a week on Fridays. It’s among the top of all podcasts and one of the leaders in the incredibly popular “true crime” genre which was, in some ways, started by Serial. Dateline ranks 5th on Sticher and 8th on Podtrac. The NBC News podcast network includes other shows like Rachel Maddow and their nightly news offerings, but Dateline NBC is the most popular in the stable. It includes different stories of murder, disappearances, theft, more murder and other “traditional” but some other weird crime stuff.
- NPR News
- Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me
- Up First
- Planet Money
- Fresh Air
I’m piling all of these podcasts together into one part of the list because they are all part of the NPR Podcast Network. According to Podtrac, NPR’s podcasts make up nine of the top 20 in the industry and all of these fall on Stitcher’s top 100. In many ways, the NPR Network shows just how difficult it is to quantify real numbers in this industry. Their dominance isn’t in doubt, as a network they easily top the group, beating out iHeart Radio and lapping most of the rest of the field. The issue is that on a show level, the popularity breakdown is mixed.
For instance, on Podtrac NPR News is the highest-rated show with Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me ranking 12th. Yet on Sticher, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me is easily the top NPR show with News ranked 43rd. This is where we cut the difference on a recording schedule being tough to weight in terms of popularity. NPR News publishes each day as a general news show.
Meanwhile, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me is a once-a-week comedic quiz show that features different celebrities answering questions about popular cultural topics. So in terms of overall total downloads, though Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me averages at least 6 million weekly listeners because of the timing NPR News is better. But in terms of popularity, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me almost definitely wins. As a tiebreaker, on Apple Podcasts, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me has 26,000 reviews while NPR news has just a shade over 5,000.
The other shows under the NPR umbrella all probably belong on “Top…” list though Top 10 might be pushing it.
Like Shapiro, NPR broadcasts its shows on hundreds of different affiliate stations meaning the NPR brand well exceeds much of anything in the podcast universe.
Which Podcast Is Most Popular?
Ranking popularity in podcasts isn’t as simple as it used to be with television and Nielsen Ratings. There we just got a basic number provided each week for how many people, in theory, watched a particular show. Those were the old (easy) days. Now we are dealing with a media that’s anything but traditional. Some shows are flying solo, some are headlined by celebrities, some are part of networks and others have television and radio reach. It’s a still-evolving form of media and we never get a true sense of actual “numbers” behind specific shows.
But one thing is for sure, podcasts are incredibly powerful forms of content and will only continue to grow.