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A Meta-Analysis of 2021’s Top Podcasts Lists

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With another round of COVID-related restrictions in place in Toronto, I had plenty of time over the holidays to dive into the many ‘Top Podcasts’ listicles that make the rounds online every December. Each list was a little different, but not so much so that I didn’t start to see some common threads. As the number I’d read approached two dozen, I started to wonder if there was more benefit to be had in a consolidated view of the different themes of these lists, rather than the individual podcasts that each of them named. After all, with a few million podcasts out there competing for your ears, focusing on any one writer’s top 10 or 20 podcasts could keep you from seeing the forest for the trees.

To this end, I took the ‘top podcasts’ lists from every online source I read (links at the end) and combined them, noting how many times each podcast was mentioned, the genre (as defined by Apple podcasts, when available), and when it was released. This left me with 432 podcast mentions representing 21 genres over 23 different listicles to work with…

…and here’s what I learned!

Even in ‘top podcasts’ lists, podcasting still has a long tail

Of the 432 podcasts mentioned by writers across the 23 curated lists, there were 274 different podcasts represented once you accounted for repeat mentions. Amazingly, 198 of those podcasts (72%) were only mentioned once. Let that sink in for a sec — the fact that more than 7-in-10 ‘top podcasts’ did not make the cut for any of the other 22 lists shows how much room to breathe there is in this space. While a few podcasts (and podcasters) seem to continually dominate the discussions on the industry, everyone has their own personal favourites, and I was happy to see that the 23 different lists weren’t just carbon copies of each other.

(Number of times each unique podcast was mentioned across the 23 different lists)

At the same time, this makes the ones mentioned several times all the more noteworthy, as they’ve stood out from the crowd for multiple listeners.

Interestingly, of the eight podcasts mentioned by five or more publications, all but two were in either the Society and Culture or True Crime genres, which leads to my next observation…

True Crime Podcasts represent more than 20% of the ‘top podcasts’ launched in 2021.

Composition of all podcast mentions across all lists by primary genre

It’s not exactly newsworthy that True Crime podcasts are popular, but the breakdown of genre mentions across all 23 ‘top podcasts’ lists is interesting for a few reasons:

1. While the appeal of crime podcasts was evident with the runaway success of Serial in late 2014, the actual True Crime category in Apple Podcasts did not exist until summer 2019. Until then, podcasts focusing on real-life criminal cases were distributed across several different genres; Someone Knows Something (News & Politics), My Favorite Murder (Comedy), and Casefile True Crime (History) were all in different categories before they were considered True Crime in the Apple ecosystem. It’s difficult to evaluate exactly what impact the re-categorization has had on the industry, but seeing the popularity of the genre laid out in a way that we weren’t previously able to has almost certainly contributed to the continued interest in the genre that we’re seeing among podcast studios.

2. True Crime is second only to Society & Culture, which is a bit of a catch-all genre, including documentaries, relationship podcasts, and until recently, many True Crime podcasts such as Criminal, Crime Junkie, and The Serial Killer Podcast.

3. True Crime punches WAY above its weight. For all the talk about them, True Crime podcasts make up a pretty small slice of overall podcasts — there are around 8,750 podcasts in Apple Podcasts with True Crime as their primary genre, which sounds like a massive amount of podcasts until you consider that those represent less than half a percent of the Apple Podcasts ecosystem. We aren’t focusing exclusively on Apple Podcasts here, but if the ratio holds true across all platforms, True Crime podcasts are over-represented on the top-podcasts lists by a factor of more than 34 times!

Exclusive podcasts are represented, but still a minority of the lists

For all the talk about platform-exclusive podcasts, very few podcasts that made the top podcast lists were only available on a single platform. There were nine exclusive podcasts (3.2%) mentioned across the various lists, with only two being mentioned more than once.

Notably, none of the big acquisitions over the past few years made any of the lists of the top podcasts. Armchair Expert (Spotify-exclusive), Call Her Daddy (Spotify-exclusive) and SmartLess (Amazon Music exclusive for the first week), were absent, and these ‘top podcasts’ lists I was reading felt like the only podcast-related articles I read in 2021 that did not mention The Joe Rogan Experience.

This may be somewhere that we see a shift in coming years, however, major players are still making acquisitions, and the majority of the platform-exclusive podcasts mentioned on these lists didn’t exist prior to 2021.

Wrapping Up

At the end of the day, attempting to create a data set comprised of lists of varying length, focus, and editorial biases is not going to yield any definitive, scientific proof of anything. But for those who want a birds-eye view of the podcasts that are being talked about, I hope this was of some help. I found it particularly encouraging to see that most podcasts were unique to a single list because it shows that there’s still more than one way to do podcasting right and become someone’s favourite, even if you’re not the biggest name on the block.

Finally, since it’s hard to have an article about lists without offering one myself, here’s the aggregated list of top podcasts across the lists mentioned in the sources below, ranked on the number of times mentioned across the 23 lists:

Have a safe and happy 2022, and let’s take a look at these next year, shall we?


AdWeekApple Podcasts, CBC, Esquire, Fortune, Mashable, The New York Times, The Black Chronicle, The Economist, The New Yorker, Time, Urban List, Variety, Vogue, Vulture, Town & CountryThe Atlantic, Stylist, The Guardian, Oprah Daily, Time Out, Entertainment Weekly

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