Adam GabbattSat, 13 February 2021, 8:00 am
What do Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Cohen, Mike Pence and Anthony Scaramucci all have in common?
They worked for Donald Trump, obviously, and several have been implicated in alleged crimes connected to the former president, but as of this month, each of these one-time high-profile Trump acolytes also has his own podcast.
Pence became the most recent to announce his own show this week, with the announcement that the oft-derided former vice-president will launch a podcast to “continue to attract new hearts and minds to the conservative cause”.
Like his one-time associates, Pence will enjoy the benefits of a regulation-free platform to share his thoughts on any topic of his choosing, and similarly to Bannon et al, Pence will also be able to keep himself in the public sphere – although the dry, mild-mannered Pence is likely to differ in tone from the Bannons and Giulianis of the podcast world.
On his War Room podcast, Bannon has called for the beheading of Anthony Fauci – something Pence is unlikely to do – while Giuliani’s Common Sense podcast has been used to further often unhinged claims of political fraud, which Pence might leave alone.
Cohen and Scaramucci’s podcasts, which are critical of Trump, may not fit in with the Trump worshippers’ efforts, but the fact that five of Trump’s most prominent acolytes chose this format for propagating their views – over television, radio or the written word – is pretty remarkable.
So, why podcasts? One major factor is one of the oldest in politics: money.
“I think in part it’s because it’s an easier medium to get into than something like radio or television. The overhead costs are much much lower. If you have an avid base, and the Trump base tends to be an avid base, you can make a ton of money doing this,” Nicole Hemmer, author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, said.
“So there’s a real revenue opportunity for them.”
Bannon et al will get paid through advertising, the amount varying depending on how many downloads they get.
“If you have audience of just 35,000 people, you can make a profitable podcast,” Hemmer said. “If you have an audience of 100,000 people, now you’re starting to talk real money, and if you’re getting millions of downloads, you can build kind of an empire.”
Everyone likes money, but Bannon, Giuliani and Pence will also be pushing their version of conservative politics.
Meanwhile, the very title of Cohen’s podcast, Mea Culpa, sets out his own, different goal – specifically, an earnest attempt to re-enter polite society. The aims of the notoriously self-promoting Scaramucci – his podcast is co-hosted with his wife and is called Scaramucci and the Mrs – probably include keeping himself famous.
Podcasts give their hosts the freedom to push all those agendas to a potentially huge audience.
Bannon, who was pardoned by Donald Trump on the former president’s last day in office, recently claimed that his podcast, Bannon’s War Room, had been streamed 29m times. Bannon is known to lie, but the architect of Trump’s “America first” policies has undoubtedly found an audience, including among those who ransacked the US Capitol on 6 January.
“It’s all converging, and now we’re on the point of attack tomorrow. It’s going to kick off, it’s going to be very dramatic,” Bannon told his listeners on 5 January. “It’s going to be quite extraordinarily different. And all I can say is strap in. You have made this happen and tomorrow it’s game day.”
Bannon’s podcast was banned from YouTube after the insurrection, while Giuliani has also had episodes removed, but the power of podcasting is that there is always somewhere for the series to run – both shows are still available on Apple Podcasts, on Bannon’s and Giuliani’s websites, and elsewhere.
“You have an independence and a freedom if you have a podcast – you’re not going to get de-platformed by social media, you’re not going to get kicked off of Fox News, you’re not going to get kicked off of radio stations,” Hemmer said.
“You have control and independence, which is a big selling point right now on the right.”
Giuliani’s podcast, Common Sense – sample title episode title: I CAN’T SAY THIS on National Television – has also taken advantage of freedom of speech. Giuliani, who was part of the team of oddball lawyers Trump sent out to prove that there was voter fraud in the election, uses his platform to further advance those spurious claims, as well as rail against “illegals” and the dark dangers of “free healthcare”.
Conservatives have traditionally relied on talk radio for their audio output, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity attracting huge, national, audiences, but podcasts have helped Republicans, who tend be older, appeal to a younger market.
Ben Shapiro, a 37-year-old conservative commentator and anti-face-mask crusader, has one of the most popular shows in the US, according to Podcast Insights, while Dan Bongino – also young by conservative standards – is also high in the list.
At 61, Pence is not young, but his podcast will be hosted by the Young Americas Foundation, a conservative group that aims to sway young people to the right, and it seems one of his aims will be to woo this younger crowd.
“By partnering with YAF, the vice-president will continue to attract new hearts and minds to the conservative cause,” Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin, and now president of YAF, said as he announced Pence’s show.
According to Walker, Pence’s as yet untitled podcast “will continue to inspire a new generation of young people”, and Pence does at least have some experience in this area. He had an Indiana-based radio talkshow for seven years in the 1990s, a job he used as a springboard to run for the House of Representatives, and perhaps another motive for the upcoming podcast is to aid Pence’s quest to be president.
Pence might not find it entirely straightforward to gain listeners, however, said Heather Hendershot, a professor of film and media at MIT who studies conservative and rightwing media.
“Pence’s effort will be interesting to watch because he has alienated so much of Trump’s base by fulfilling his constitutional mandate and not overturning the election,” Hendershot said.
Against the wishes of Trump, Pence did not attempt on 6 January to override the results of the election, and the cries from Trump supporters that day of “hang Mike Pence” suggest the former vice-president may not be popular among the right wing.
“What is left of non-Trump conservatism in the US may not want to be associated with him either,” Hendershot said, given Pence’s long connection with the toxic former-president.
“So Pence might struggle to find sponsors and have to decide if he really wants to do podcasts for free, sheerly to fulfill his own ideological commitments.”