IN THE LAST couple decades, podcasting has gone from a nascent audio curiosity to a media monster. Prominent shows like “The Joe Rogan Experience,” “Crime Junkie” and “Stuff You Should Know” garner tens of millions of weekly downloads. These empires now extend beyond their listeners’ earbuds. Popular podcasts have robust social media followings, sell out live recordings (in pre-Covid times, of course) and run fully fleshed-out merchandise operations.
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The podcast merch business, in particular, is soaring, as more listeners want to show their allegiance to their podcast of choice through a T-shirt, mug or hoodie. Marisa Morales, the head of merchandising at Stitcher, a podcast conglomerate, said that sales of merchandise associated with Stitcher shows like “WTF with Marc Maron,” “Sklarbro Country” and “Freakonomics Radio” are roughly doubling every year. She likened the excitement surrounding, say, a newly launched mug from “The Office Ladies,” a podcast about the bygone sitcom, to the frenetic hype around the release of Air Jordan sneakers. Hundreds of coffee cups can sell out in hours.
This fervent merchandise market has no parallel in traditional media. Newspapers and periodicals still sweeten subscription deals with giveaways—many of us have New Yorker tote bags languishing in our closets, or own that “ESPN the Magazine” fleece that was advertised heavily on TV during the aughts. But podcast merchandise operates as a standalone phenomenon that sees listeners plop down $30 just for a T-shirt or $60 for a hoodie. As Ms. Morales said, merch appeals because it makes a listener’s connection to a podcast tangible.
In this sense, the closest cousin to podcast merch is band T-shirts. Dita Cordelia, 24, a freelance video producer and dedicated podcast listener in Los Angeles, likened her Scriptnotes shirt—denoting her devotion to a weekly podcast on screenwriting—to the Morrissey T-shirt she wore in high school. In both instances, she said, the shirts emit an insider (some would say hipster) message of “Oh you don’t know about this…you have to listen to this.”
And like concert T-shirts, podcast gear lets listeners back their favorite sources of entertainment. “It’s supporting something I’m into,” said Corey Long, 40, a contract coordinator at an Atlanta university, who recently purchased a shirt from upstart podcast “How Long Gone,” hosted by two elder millennial bros. (In the case of larger shows with mammoth audiences, it’s sales of ads, not merch, that typically keep the mics on.) Mr. Long concedes that, unlike buying concert shirts while surrounded by a swarm of fellow fans, purchasing podcast merch isn’t a “shared experience.” You’re at home alone, listening in isolation.
That bubble of privacy is central to a podcast’s appeal though. Ms. Cordelia of Los Angeles said that last year she started listening to podcasts instead of the radio to stay calm while commuting. Podcasts, she said, “felt like listening to friends having an easy conversation compared to Ryan Seacrest telling me at eight in the morning to listen to this rap song.” That intimacy offers an escapism that some listeners have particularly relished during the past frenzied year. Tellingly, this past holiday season, Ms. Cordelia and her friends bought each other podcast shirts, rather than band shirts as in the past—reflecting their changing listening habits.
When it comes to the design printed on a podcast shirt, “the more inside the joke, the better” said Ms. Morales of Stitcher, whose merch-site Podswag.com lets you buy head-scratcher tees that say “Cheese Side Down’’ or “Don’t Be An Irony.” Only listeners who download “The Sporkful” or “The Murder Squad,” respectively, will really chuckle at these shirts.
The tee Mr. Long bought from “How Long Gone” riffs on a cover design of an obscure punk album. The shirt’s painfully niche reference helped him identify with the show’s hosts: “The podcast is by two aging hardcore punk dudes. And I’m also an aging hardcore punk dude.” So far, none of his friends has picked up on the shirt’s reference.
Fostering a community through merch is certainly one of the show’s goals. “We want to build the ‘How Long Gone’ universe,” said co-host Chris Black. After releasing a couple of referential T-shirts and totes, he and his fellow host Jason Stewart are partnering with Tinker, an Indianapolis-based coffee manufacturer. to release a canned cold-brew coffee called “Mudd,” the term Mr. Black uses when discussing coffee on the show.
This caffeinated plan epitomizes how podcasts are blossoming into full-fledged lifestyle brands. “The Office Ladies” sells blankets, backpacks, frisbees and appropriately a stapler (get it, “The Office”). “The Last Podcast on the Left,” a comedy crime show, has released a now-sold-out cruiser bike with New York’s Priority Bikes. And “This Podcast Will Kill You,” which topically focuses on disease and epidemiological concerns, has sold its own signature soap.
Not all customers of podcast merch even pick-up on the tie-in at first. Unaware it was connected to a show, Dan Christansen, 38, who works in marketing in Philadelphia, recently was smitten with a tote bag he’d seen on Instagram from the New York-based basketball podcast “Cookies Hoops.” (A wry parody of the classic New Yorker tote, the $35 bag shows Eustace Tilley spinning a basketball.) After tooling around on the show’s site, Mr. Christansen bought a shirt, with NBA’ers Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid caricatured as Beavis & Butthead and the phrase “Practice Sucks” on the front. Though the tee relates back to topics covered on the show, Mr. Christansen views it as a “standalone piece” instead of as a “badge” indicating he listens to the podcast.
Certain podcasts are even pushing their merch into the luxury realm. In recent months “Throwing Fits,” a cultish year-old fashion podcast, has partnered with the Italian shoe brand Diemme on $300 co-branded olive green suede Chelsea boots and the American shoe label Blackstock & Weber on $295 bench-made bit loafers. Each of the shoe designs sold “hundreds of pairs,” said co-host James Harris.
Alex Green, a 21-year-old college student in Amherst, Mass., was among those who purchased the Chelsea boots. Given his budget, the shoes were an investment, but he put his trust in the two hosts. “They’re great tastemakers…These are guys that I turn to for fashion advice,” he said. “And there’s not many people I do turn to for fashion advice.”
For the hosts, choosing a tangible, upscale product to sell surely required more effort than just barking out some hot takes. The co-hosts wanted the listeners “to be satisfied with what they’ve spent their hard earned money on,” said Lawrence Schlossman, Mr. Harris’s partner in crime. They considered different samples and wear-tested the boots and loafers for months before releasing them. This process shifted “Throwing Fits” from a mere merch operation into something approaching a private label clothier. Said Mr. Schlossman, “When we’re in loafer mode or we’re in boot mode, it’s like I don’t feel like a pod any more. I feel like we’re a brand.”
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com
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