The relationship between Nicholas Quah ’12 and podcasts is a true love story. College can be a stressful time for any University student, and while some people turn to emotional support animals or Netflix, Quah found serenity in an entirely different form.
“I started listening to podcasts around sophomore year, largely because I started running in the early mornings,” Quah said. “At that point I discovered Radiolab. It really kicked into gear the spring of my junior year, when I started having trouble sleeping and began feeling a little depressed. That’s when I started developing this romantic notion of having these very well thought-out and superbly produced stories.”
While podcasts helped Quah get through the college grind, he did not abandon them as his outlook on life became more positive. To the contrary: In 2014 Quah founded Hot Pod, an internet newsletter with almost 10,000 subscribers that is dedicated to all things podcasting, and left his job in Audience Development at Slate this month to professionalize it. Since devoting himself to covering both the business and news aspects of the podcast industry full-time, Quah has recognized the growing market for coverage of this particular niche of media. He announced plans last month to turn Hot Pod into a fully sustainable publication, allowing it to compete with projects such as Podster, and the efforts of other media entrepreneurs who have also recognized the opportunity to capitalize on the growth of podcasting.
As the medium explodes in popularity and the technology and business surrounding podcasting transforms dramatically, Quah has positioned himself as one of the go-to experts in the field.
“Hot Pod came about because I was bored at my job,” Quah said. “Serial was having early success and there were tons of articles being written about it and tons of coverage of how popular that podcast had become. Still, I felt that there was a lack of understanding about the culture and the history behind Serial and podcasting as a medium. Simultaneous to that, there were a lot of people who began sending me emails asking about podcast recommendations because they knew I was really into the medium.”
Quah’s early interest in podcasts meant that he already possessed the wealth of knowledge and broad institutional memory regarding the field, which allowed him to navigate its rapidly changing landscape with ease. He understood how ubiquitous the medium could become, partially due to the wide range of programs he himself had enjoyed. At the University, while Quah mostly drew to NPR-syndicated programming such as Pop Culture Happy Hour, he listened extensively to everything from Bill Simmons to video game podcasts (notwithstanding the fact that he does not even play video games). As Quah noted, he’s not only drawn to a compelling narrative, but also the democratizing aspect of the medium that empowers freedom of expression.
“There’s a notion that the form really lends itself to people speaking out,” Quah said.
After honing his business reporting skills at Business Insider and Slate’s podcast network Panoply Media, Quah soon realized that his experience covering developments in the media and his personal interests in podcasting could be united together.
“I thought I would just combine these two things I was doing,” Quah said. “I really like describing what I think about podcasts in general and I also like doing a bit of reporting on specific industries and the media. So, I decided to combine the two things and just roll out this fun, noisy, stupid newsletter. A couple of months after that, I started to really get some steam, and enough people of note started subscribing and reading it.”
Quah couldn’t have picked a better time to begin investigating the culture and history of podcasts. The rise of Hot Pod has corresponded with the growing popularity of podcasts that focus on investigative journalism and meticulous long-form storytelling, such as Fresh Air and Serial, a spinoff of This American Life. In particular, it was the success of Serial, which won a Peabody Award last April and is number one on podbay.fm and the iTunes podcast charts, that represented the moment when podcasting broke out into the greater media landscape.
“Serial happened to explode in popularity because it has become a pivotal part of the medium; but also as a function of the history that podcasting has followed,” Quah said. “You cannot deny the extremely high skill level of the producers of Serial, but also the podcast medium and distribution channel has been around for about ten years, and there have been one or two moments before where everybody thought podcasting was going to explode.”
Why podcasts, especially those with more complex and detailed narratives, failed to attract a more widespread audience several years ago, is anyone’s guess, but Quah believes it is because the media technology that has allowed the podcast to become easily comprehensible to the general public has only evolved recently. While Quah says the running joke between industry insiders is that some people still don’t even know how to go about downloading a podcast, it’s clear that the format has now built the mass consumer language necessary to convey the medium’s appeal. With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, and increasing download speeds and bit rates, consumers understand what it means to actually download content to their phones and how to search for compelling audio on the internet with efficiency. As technology developed, the podcast industry was able to grow steadily and sharpen its cultural ethos.
“While the form never ended up taking [in the mid 2000’s], it did lead to years and years of solid and reliable growth with people innovating within the format, trying out the form, and forming the subculture,” Quah said. “So when Serial dropped a hit, I think it was an interesting combination of Serial being very good on its own and attracting the attention of critics, people who are in the media, and consume media as a whole. But also it activated such a latent understanding and sub-community that existed around podcasting. So I think that if Serial had decided to drop itself as a podcast in 2006 or 2007, I have a tough time imagining it would have the same effect as it does now.”
For Quah, the biggest challenge in developing Hot Pod and keeping up with the mounting demand for media coverage of podcasting has been financial. It was only recently that he was able to focus on Hot Pod full-time; in the past few years, he has conducted research and reported on digital media trends for the likes of BuzzFeed, Slate, and Business Insider.
“The biggest hurdle just comes in putting myself logistically and financially in the position where I can execute,” Quah said. “The thing is about being a freelancer or starting a business is you have to be really good at controlling and understanding your finances and being able to [do] that without ambiguity. That was my biggest hurdle I had to negotiate. How much money do I have? How much money am I spending? How much money do I need to accumulate on that side that gives me the opportunity to execute projects in the short-term? I have a sense of how many people I need to get subscribing to be able to keep going and do this in a way that is affordable and fits my lifestyle.”
In addition to the financial obstacles he faced, Quah never received the kind of formal training at the University in the technical or business skills that translate directly to more entrepreneurial ventures.
“I’m right now building a WordPress site and figuring out integrations of third-party software,” Quah said. “And I was never formally educated in technology and computer science, so every punch that I’m throwing right now, I sort of have to teach myself how to do it. You have to be very frank and honest with yourself. If I run out of money, 80 percent of that is on me and I sort of have to embrace that. I’ve always enjoyed figuring myself out in that perspective, or putting myself in the situation to sort of figure out my work.”
Quah isn’t sure exactly where his ability to critique and analyze business and media trends originates from, but he believes that the strenuous work ethic he developed while studying in The College of Social Studies (CSS) was critical to instilling the sense of discipline necessary to keep up with the intense workflow at a startup like Hot Pod. He noted that the training it provided in honing his ability to logically construct arguments and evaluate large volumes of information for its key components gave him an invaluable tool kit. In addition to CSS, Wesleying gave Quah his first opportunity to flex his journalistic muscles and gain valuable reporting experience. Still, while Quah was able to overcome many of the initial financial and technical hurdles that he was faced with, the concept of doubt is constantly on his mind.
“I’m one of those people who lives too much in my head,” Quah said. “It’s funny, because I was joking with somebody earlier this week that I’m so self-effacing but the other side is that you can’t actually do something like this if you don’t think it’s going to work out. I deal with those twin impulses of being extremely egocentric and also being extremely self-effacing.”
As for the future trajectory of Hot Pod, and the podcasting industry in general, Quah is uncertain. What he is sure of is that the podcast is a growing medium because its popularity is driven almost singularly by the strength of its underlying content. So long as there is a market for media that can transport a depressed college student like Quah to another, more fascinating world, the compelling storytelling aspect of podcasts will always survive in some audio form.
“The think I keep arguing is that the podcast distribution format is irrelevant,” Quah said. “It’s just a way to transport a certain type of media programming. Whatever the future may bring, there will always a route for shows like Radiolab or Fresh Air. The question is how do we get that programming to the people who really want it.”