Quartz Obsession: The content, commercial, and conversational considerations that go into a successful modern podcast

Now into its third season, the Quartz Obsession podcast has been an overnight audio success. Taking simple, everyday ideas and unravelling the facts behind them, the show reintroduces an air of serendipity to what can at times these days feel like an overly formulaic internet. Each week, a new episode uncovers the mechanics behind a topic you may not have even previously considered at face value, let alone in-depth! 

From Afrobeats to edible bugs, office chairs to oatmilk, and why an Indian wedding may one day prove to be the priciest party of your life – it’s all in there, and it’s all beautifully random! Whatsmore, each episode is neatly packaged into a 20-30min airing… so you’re in, you’re out, you’ve got your latest set of factoids, and you can move on with your life (or to the next episode!) 

So join us here for a little taste of the Obsession offering, as we chat to Quartz Executive Editor and Obsession Podcast Host, Kira Bindrim, about the content, commercial, and conversational considerations that go into one of the industry’s most successful non-niche podcasts…  

“My ‘dayjob’ is that I am usually working with our email team, our audience development team, our international teams, and our data visualisation team,” Bindrim tells us at the outset. “And then newly in the last 6-8 months, I have become the host of the Quartz Obsession podcasts… which is almost a side hustle for me within Quartz!”

“The idea is that we are interested in fascinating back stories behind everyday ideas. It’s a concept that existed well before the Quartz podcasts, and the idea is that we’re not just explaining the world  to you, we’re obsessed with how it works and we want you to come along on that journey with us…” 

“It’s not just that inflation is up… it’s that the entire idea of 2% inflation comes from this random TV interview from 1996… or it’s not just that perfume is interesting because we all buy it, it’s that the supply chains behind perfume involve like pulling weird ingredients out of the vomit of whales… like it’s all of this interesting stuff about how the world gets to us.”

As Bindrim highlights, the Quartz Obsession offering is not new. In fact, it’s been around in weekly newsletter format since 2017. So when the idea of creating a new podcast was posed, transferring the publication’s weekly hone-in on a specific – though maybe slightly random – topic, seemed like a natural progression. 

“I think context is a big part of what Quartz is always trying to do,” says Bindrim. “And over the past three years in particular, it’s also felt necessary. There are so many reasons to read the news and freak out, and one of the things we’re trying to do is say don’t freak out! Let’s give you the wider picture, what are the upstream and downstream effects of this thing, how can you place it in your mind so that not everything feels like this crazy news moment? 

“So we want to give you context and backstory…and the other things you need to know other than just ‘number went or up down’, ‘price went up or down’, ‘thing is new’ – to kindof put everything in context for you in the global economy.”

Of course, while podcasts are a hot topic in the industry right now, so too are newsletters, so I asked Kira to elaborate a little more on Obsession in written form…  

“It was our first experimentation of really trying to break the format of email, which is usually just text down the line. It has little polls you can take, or little quizzes, and it breaks outcertain segments. So if we’re talking about perfume for example, you might get this interesting thesis about all these fascinating supply chains, followed by five of the weirdest supply chains for common perfume ingredients, and then you might get ten numbers that are really important to understanding the industry. It’s this sort of breaking your minds a little bit from just the monotony of reading texts.”

“But I also think for both email and podcasts, there’s something about the intimacy of the relationship you have with someone in both of those formats. Ten years ago, digital media in particular was all about scale – reaching the highest number of people so you can sell advertising on that reach. But now there’s a lot of conversation about the quality of your relationship with the reader or listener… is this someone who has a habit with you? So I’m not surprised that both of these mediums are having a moment right now, because I think that they speak to that bigger trend.”

“Discovery is a big challenge, which we also see in the history of media. The barrier of entry to producing a podcast went way down, you can just sit in your closet with the right equipment and do it. But the barrier to entry in terms of getting that in front of enough people is getting harder…”

And was making the transition from text to audio really as simple as that? Or are there challenges associated with the latter that just don’t crop up in written format?  

“Discovery is a big challenge, which we also see in the history of media. The barrier of entry to producing a podcast went way down, you can just sit in your closet with the right equipment and do it. But the barrier to entry in terms of getting that in front of enough people is getting harder, in the post serial days So that’s important to make sure that were reaching enough people and expanding our audience through this podcast.”

“But again, certainly editorially the idea of translating the Obsession email into audio made a ton of sense. I think the big difference is that what you’re asking of a person is higher… Taking four minutes to read an email is different to sitting down and spending 25mins listening to me talk! Therefore, there is greater expectation and we need to make doubly sure that we have a really interesting takeaway story.” 

For all of our budding podcasters out there, are there specific lessons the Host has learned so far, that they might apply to their own work? 

“Omg so much! When I listen to the pilot now, I was so bad! Like I just did not know what I was doing! The biggest thing I had to learn – which I’m sure you’ve already learned about me – is that I need to slow down, I talk too fast! That was probably number one.” 

“But two is – and this true of the obsession, it might not be true of different hosts in different contexts – I try to be the voice and the ears of the listener. So if somebody is explaining something  to me and I am confused, or I don’t understand a word they said, I don’t care if I sound dumb, I say ok please back up and explain this to me! Tell me why I should give a crap about this thing that you’re talking about!”  

“I think that’s a big role for a host. If your guest is getting offtrack in anyway that’s going to make it hard for somebody to stay invested, your job is to try and reel that back in.” 

Image: Shutterstock.com/meunierd

“For disarming guests, I just ask stupid things! I just ask dumb questions to sort of lighten them up or change the mood. A good example is we just had an episode that we did on movie sequels and why they’re all anyone wants to make anymore, and why they are inherently always so bad… and one of the fun debates we got into was what is a movie that you think should never have had a sequel?” 

“That was like an off the cuff question that I thought about, and have had people tell me since like oh, after the podcast I was asking my friend that question! So I think those little things where you can help to put guests minds at ease is useful. People who are guests on podcasts are so nervous about saying the right things, and referring to their notes, if you can just settle them out of that a little bit, that’s always helpful.”  

For me personally as a listener, I often struggle with the ‘longer form’ podcast. So anything from 45-60mins usually feels too much, even if it’s a subject that I’m really interested in. Was the decision to limit the length of Obsession a conscious one that Quartz made, to keep things short and snappy!

“I don’t want to listen to myself for more than 25mins!” says Kira. “I cant imagine anyone else does. So for me 25mins is a nice little package of time, for like ‘I’m going for a walk’ or ‘I’m cooking dinner’. For me, I’ve struggled to find the place in my life to listen to podcasts because some of them are so long… so I think having a tight little conversation like this is perfect.” 

“And one of the things we talk about at Quartz is information density. So that even if it was only 20 mins you really feel like you’ve come away with a lot of stuff that you’ve learned or will keep thinking about. I think that’s the goal, everyone’s pressed for time, so we try and make them interesting, and get people interested as quickly as possible.”

The Obsession podcast is available across Spotify, Apple, Google, and Stitcher, as well as via direct Megaphone embed on the Quartz website. The publisher has also been able to leverage the success of the existing Obsession email to increase podcast reach further, and invites readers to listen alongside articles of related topics.   

“We saw about 65,000 downloads for the first season, and about 36,000 unique listeners. We just wrapped season two, and one of the nice things about this podcast is that the episodes don’t expire, they’re topics that have legs. So already with the launch of the second season, we’ve seen an increase in subscribers, and a doubling of listens for each episode within 24hrs and 7days. And that’s good because it means that we’re building a habit with people where they listen quickly, which is something we want to keep building.”

“Each of the seasons we’ve had so far has had a dedicated sponsor, and I have done Host-read ads, as is typical in the industry. For season three, we actual have a more interactive advertising format, where our ads are an actual conversation between myself and someone at the company, so it’s a little bit more of a personal approach.” 

A few years ago, video was seen as the ‘next big thing’ in digital media. But as mobile technology has evolved (and social viewing rates have gone down), we have seen a shift towards audio, and hence the recent boom in podcasts. So does Bindrim see this as a trend that is here to stay? Or could we potentially see greater convergence between audio and visual formats in the future?

“Yeah that’s a great question. I think we’re going to see more convergence of those things. Like another fascinating habit former for podcasts is YouTube. We put our episodes on there, just audio with graphics, and we do see that people are listening to them. We’re also seeing in podcasting some trends that will lend themselves to video, like lots of celebrities doing podcasts and stuff like that, where just having them on camera is going to be cool.” 

“So I do think we’ll see more of that where it’s pretty normal to choose between watching or listening to a podcast, but hopefully not too much! Either way, we’re definitely not done with video, there are just too many channels out there right now – TikTok, YT, etc. – that demonstrate how powerful it remains.”

“What’s also interesting is that younger folks seem to have a different relationship with audio. They are more comfortable for example doing voicememos on their phone, which is quite alien to me because I’m so text orientated. I wonder if that will end up ushering in new things, like listening to articles becoming the norm. I do think we’ll see some evolution of that, where just choosing between reading, watching and listening becomes a lot more fluid for people when they’re consuming content.”

“I just love that sort of thing where it’s a group of smart, funny people, like sitting at a bar together talking. That’s the thing that really resonates for me.” 

Finally, as both a host and a listener, I had to ask what are some of Kira’s favourites right now? 

“Oh no you’re gonna make me choose a favourite! Probably my favourite conversation was the sequels one. I think it’s one of those things where there is nobody that doesn’t have an opinion… Is Alien or Aliens better and all of that stuff, or do you like marvel or is marvel destroying culture!? These are things that are realty fun to debate. So it was really cool to be able to put that into context in terms of how the business models for sequels and franchises blew up, but then also get to talk about our own movie preferences.” 

“For me personally listening more broadly, I really gravitate towards podcasts that feel like I’m just listening to my friends chat (which again is I hope what comes across on Obsession when I chat to the reporters). Because I read news all day, I don’t like news podcasts and I don’t really like the sort of long form narrative arc – I certainly would not have the patience today for serial the way I did back when that format first started and it was so novel.”

“Who Weekly is one I like, that’s a podcast where two friends talk about all the D-list celebrity drama! I like SmartLess, with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, & Will Arnett. I just love that sort of thing where it’s a group of smart, funny people, like sitting at a bar together talking. That’s the thing that really resonates for me.” 

Season 3 is now available for your listening pleasure here.  

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