Stuff You Should Know is not only one of the longest-running shows on the iHeartPodcast Network, but it is one of its most listened to. The show regularly appears in Podtrac’s monthly top ten and two years ago it became the first show to pass one billion downloads and spawn a best-selling book.
“The last four years, to have a show that’s rooted in truth and science and doing our best to be accurate with stuff, it’s been a good time for Stuff You Should Know to be around against that backdrop,” said co-host Chuck Bryant. “It’s been a good run for us to be a little bit of light in the darkness that we have seen.”
But far from politics, co-host Josh Clark said he views their series as a “respite” from the news of the day. During a presentation to ad buyers last week, he said they aim to keep their content apolitical to appeal to a wide base of listeners.
“If something needs to be called out, like voter suppression, we’ll do an episode on that,” said Clark. “But we go to the trouble of explaining why it’s not both sides, or how both sides do it. We drill down into the facts behind it and that’s how we stay ahead of being political.”
The show’s mission may be to explain everything. To help listeners sort through the hundreds and hundreds of topics, last year iHeart created the Best of Stuff podcast playlist, which compiles content from episodes.
The show was conceived in 2008 as a podcast version of the articles that were appearing on the HowStuffWorks.com website. “It was a side gig. It was not something that we could fail at in this weird new medium that no one understood,” remembered Bryant.
‘First Signs That This Was Different’
Stuff You Should Know was part of the portfolio of podcasts that iHeartMedia acquired when it bought Stuff Media in 2018. Conal Byrne, now President of the iHeartPodcast Network, said long before then he had an inkling that podcasts would become something bigger when he got feedback from Stuff You Should Know fans.
“They were the first signals that this was different,” said Byrne. There was super fandom, an engagement about listeners of podcasts that felt different. That turned out to be true and now there are 100 million people a month in the U.S. who listen to podcasts.”
Bryant said he has not been surprised to see listeners reacting to such an intimate medium that often beams directly into their ears. “It’s the most intimate medium that you can have. It’s like talk radio and podcasts,” he said. “It’s conversational, and we decided to leave in all the stumbles and make it a real conversation and people connect with these voices. It’s really neat how podcasts have grown to include scripted and interview shows, and comedy shows. But at the heart of the industry, it’s always been about a few people having a conversation that other people are eavesdropping on.”
Clark thinks podcasting’s success is tied to the sense of friendship that listeners have with the hosts. “People still write-in to us on a weekly basis,” he said. “When we meet our listeners, they approach us like friends, not like fans.”
Meeting fans face-to-face at Stuff You Should Know live-tapings is something that is unlikely to return until late 2021, at the earliest, because of the pandemic. “That’s one of the things we both miss,” said Bryant. “That’s the real connection we have with listeners.” He said the live-tapings have also become a meet-and-greet for fans of the show, some of whom have bonded over their love of the podcast.
Having produced nearly two thousand episodes, Bryant said there have been some highs and lows. The hard sciences like math, chemistry and physics are the biggest struggles for him, while episodes that are about history are his favorites.
Clark is more specific. His least-favorite episode was their 2016 show about how jackhammers work. “It’s famously bad and we always poke fun at it on the show,” he said, explaining it has almost become a character unto itself among the hosts and fans. His favorite shows are when they are able to explain everyday objects like ketchup – which started out as a Vietnamese fish sauce.
“Just stuff you look right past and take for granted,” said Clark. “But when you poke around in subjects like that, you find really interesting stuff every time.”