It was early November 2014, and Nicholas Quah was irritated. Serial had become a pop culture phenomenon, introducing millions to the idea of “the podcast” — which was perhaps a niche form, but hardly the oddball novelty it was being treated as. “I was really frustrated,” Quah recalls, “because people were writing about [podcasting] as if it came out of nowhere.” In fact, podcasting had been around for more than a decade, and according to Statista, in the U.S. an estimated 40 million people were already monthly podcast listeners.
At the time, one fledgling podcast network, Gimlet, was raising $1.5 million in seed funding from private investors, and another, Radiotopia, was on its way to raising $600,000 on Kickstarter. To Quah this seemed like a true breakthrough moment — “a new frontier,” he later wrote. “But if that was the case, why didn’t anything that was written about this moment feel emotionally true?” And so, over two proceeding lunch breaks on November 4 and 5, he banged out the first issue of Hot Pod, an email newsletter devoted to his own idiosyncratic musings on podcasting as both a creative form and a media business category.
By his own account, Quah’s actual qualifications for taking on the role of public thinker on podcasting were nil. He’d never made a podcast, had no background in radio or audio media of any kind. In fact, he was not long out of college and a few months into his first media job, an entry-level gig at Business Insider that he describes as closer to market research than journalism. He was basically some random guy with a new off-hours hobby.
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And it turns out that Quah, who recently turned 31, had made a shrewd call. Podcasting has mushroomed into a booming business. The podcast audience has more than doubled since 2014 — to an estimated 88 million listeners last year — and is projected to nearly double again by 2023. It’s attracting multimillion-dollar investments and splashy corporate deals. Podcast startup Luminary reportedly raised $100 million in advance of its 2019 launch. Over the summer, the New York Times Company purchased the production company behind Serial for some $25 million, and SiriusXM bought pod platform Stitcher for $325 million. Apple, whose Podcast app is the default platform for millions of listeners, is reportedly plotting to produce shows, and Amazon’s audiobook division Audible has been meeting with talent agents and production companies and “offering anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars per show,” according to Bloomberg. Production company Wondery, whose hit true-crime collaboration with the L.A. Times, Dirty John, led to a Netflix series and high hopes for a business model built around developing intellectual property, is now said to be seeking a buyer, at a valuation in the $200 million range. And Spotify has put itself at the center of this ecosystem, spending more than half a billion dollars acquiring podcast companies like Gimlet and The Ringer and signing exclusive shows with the likes of Joe Rogan.
As podcasting’s profile has risen, so has Quah’s. Within a couple years of starting his newsletter, this random guy was able to quit his day job and become, for lack of a better word, a full-time expert, his pod-related opinions and observations quoted in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. His newsletter Hot Pod now has between 20,000 and 25,000 subscribers (a combination of paid and free) and earns six figures, he says — a substantial figure for what amounts to a trade journal written almost like a personal zine, mixing the latest pod news with commentary and asides. (That audience is comparable to, for example, The Interface, the tech-oriented Verge newsletter created by journalist Casey Newton.) Select Hot Pod material is syndicated in New York’s Vulture, where Quah also writes a separate podcast-recommendation column. He has organized podcasting events and talks. And most recently and perhaps inevitably, he now has his own podcast about podcasting called Servant of Pod, produced by LAist Studios and attracting media- and podcast-star guests like Kara Swisher, Gretchen Rubin, and Roman Mars.
His newsletter Hot Pod now has between 20,000 and 25,000 subscribers and earns six figures, he says — a substantial figure for what amounts to a trade journal written almost like a personal zine.
The upshot is that Quah “created a niche for himself, basically out of whole cloth,” says Peter Kafka, who covers media and technology for Recode, and hosts the Recode Media podcast. And Quah did it in large part by being early: A “very small” number of people were paying serious attention to podcasting as a potentially potent format back in 2014, Kafka points out. If practically “everyone in podcasting reads him,” as Kafka suggests, maybe that’s partly because nobody else was writing so explicitly for them.
“He’s the perfect spokesperson for this industry,” says Sarah van Mosel, chief revenue officer at Stitcher and a former New York Public Radio executive. “Indie, simultaneous insider/outsider, very smart, very skeptical, and yet very hopeful.” She characterizes Quah as both an enthusiast and a subtle shaper of the category’s growth. “Does anybody understand this space the way Nick does?” she added. “I believe the answer is no, not by a long shot.”
Of course, not everybody is a fan. But even a veteran producer who complains Quah can be superficial and gossipy, more often commenting on the latest podcast news than doing original reporting, admits to eagerly consuming Hot Pod “like popcorn” just the same. And more to the point: “I’ve been in so many meetings,” says this producer, who has worked with several major podcasting entities, “where people are trying to figure out how to get his attention.”
So at this point, Quah’s formal qualifications hardly matter. He has something much more powerful: A kind of status that reveals the way expertise and authority are built and shaped now. More than ever, expertise seems to have become a DIY affair; strategic and determined obsession can replace specific credentials or a tangible track record.
Quah’s unlikely ascendence reveals how the burgeoning expert economy is trickier than its advocates suggest.
Ben Thompson, of the popular Stratechery newsletter and podcast, is perhaps the most obsessed-about figure in the self-made-expert category; his $120 a year tech business strategy newsletter, written from Taiwan, is believed by some to be a seven-figure business and has made him a kind of patron saint for a wave of writers and pundits looking to drum up some version of his success, Quah among them. “I don’t know Nick well, but generally speaking, I am a big believer that the internet’s drastic increase in addressable audience makes far more niche publications possible,” says Thompson, who rarely grants interviews, in an emailed statement, “and Nick is a great example.”
Quah’s unlikely ascendence reveals how the burgeoning expert economy is trickier than its advocates suggest. An expert, whether self-invented or fully credentialed, is nothing without an audience, and digital media actually makes that truer than ever: Success depends on a quantifiable crowd of admirers, not the borrowed aura of an established media entity. The “addressable” audience Thompson refers to is conventionally defined as the number of people a media entity or platform or person can potentially reach. But it’s useful to think more specifically about whether there’s a subset of that audience that is not merely open to a particular flavor of content, but actively craves it — the audience, in other words, that essentially demands an expert. Somewhere around November 2014, there was an audience hungry for treating the podcast business as something more than a curiosity. By design or luck, Quah spotted that demand, and has cornered it.
One year ago, Nick Quah moved from Connecticut to Boise, Idaho, largely so that his wife could finish her dissertation and be closer to her aging father. It’s not an obvious place for any sort of media-business expert to end up, but Quah seems to be pleased with this scenario. “I am not a big fan of living in the big cities on the coasts,” he says, in his polite but medium-cool tone. “I’m also just interested in the rest of the country. So, this was a good opportunity.”
Quah was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city and capital, and often mentions that he’s not an American — in between breezy references to everything from Carly Rae Jepsen to the NBA playoffs that suggest an above-average immersion in American pop culture. Like many other middle- or upper-middle-class young Malaysians, he always intended to study abroad; the United Kingdom and Australia are typical choices, and for a long time, he assumed he would go to college in the U.K., study law, and return to Malaysia to practice and perhaps over time pursue politics.
But he was also interested in film, thanks in part to the “huge pirated DVD market” in Malaysia at the time, and happened to hear of a scholarship to the film program at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He didn’t get the scholarship, but he did get admission — and decided to go. “In hindsight, I really do not understand why my parents didn’t raise more of a stink,” he says.
Arriving at Wesleyan in 2008, he wrote scripts and studied film history, but soon concluded the film business would be tough to crack, and switched over to a broader social studies degree. It was around this time that he became interested in a certain strain of public radio — This American Life, On The Media, Radiolab — that introduced him to podcasting. He didn’t think of it in career terms; it was just stuff he enjoyed listening to, in this new and convenient on-demand format.
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Avery Trufelman, now the host of New York Magazine’s The Cut culture podcast, was friendly with Quah at Wesleyan, describing him as a “super smart, funny, nerdy guy.” But he didn’t seem to have any particular interest in audio media. Quah says he liked to write, but the idea of media (new or old) as a career wasn’t particularly appealing. “I did not hold any reverence for the New York Times” or other traditional media icons, he says. “I was not interested in the notion of journalism. I was very much interested in the notion of voice and art and entertainment and that kind of thing.”
He went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, pursuing a master’s in social sciences. He didn’t know what he was doing. His plan was basically: “Well, maybe I could just get a PhD and be a professor somewhere in something.” He wanted to stay in the U.S., but graduate school made him miserable. “I realized that I hated being in class.” He walked around for hours on end — listening to a wider and wider range of podcasts, from the philosophy series The Partially Examined Life to the comedy show Professor Blastoff to Marc Maron’s popular interview podcast.
“He almost comes at it from a place of fandom — like someone who’s into classic cars or something. Driven by passion, not some academic understanding of what should be good.”
He also got interested, through a friend, in Chicago’s comedy scene, which ended up inspiring his thesis: He noticed that some performers evolved into stars, while others seemed to stay stuck in place, year after year. “Essentially I was trying to figure out the question that’s not too far to what I’m trying to figure out now,” he says. “How do you move forward? How do you see your opportunities?”
After grad school, he and his girlfriend got married and moved to New York City in 2013. There was still not much of a plan, but New York seemed like the sort of place one goes to move forward and spot opportunities. After a few months of temp and freelance gigs for tech companies and startups, Quah drifted toward writing and media. He took short-lived jobs at Business Insider and then at Buzzfeed.
When Serial mania kicked in, Quah saw podcasting inspiring big articles in magazines like Fast Company and New York — and even a Saturday Night Live parody. “I knew something was different,” he says. Maybe now would be a good time to start putting his thoughts about the form — as an expressive medium, as a business — into words. Hot Pod, which he initially sent to friends, gave him a creative outlet where he could do whatever he wanted.
Hot Pod quickly found its audience. Just months after launching, Quah noticed some of those signing up for his newsletter had email addresses from WNYC, New York’s public radio behemoth. Soon, readers were sending in tips about new shows in development or personnel moves or promotions that weren’t a big enough deal for the mainstream press to care, but might be fun watercooler fodder for insiders.
After Buzzfeed, he worked in audience development for Panoply, at the time a pioneering podcast production company spun out of Slate. “I was already a fan of his newsletter,” recalls Andy Bowers, co-founder of Panoply. But as the newsletter grew, Quah decided that working for a podcast company felt awkward. In February of 2016, he left to make a go of Hot Pod.
On one level, the internet has been minting self-made experts for decades. Certainly, tech pundits like Om Malik and Rafat Ali, among others, built personal brands that they leveraged into businesses in the 2000s and earlier.
But in more recent years, the paid newsletter has become an increasingly attractive strategy. Stratechery’s Ben Thompson is the go-to aspirational case study: Originally from small-town Wisconsin, he worked in business development at Microsoft and Automattic, and was a “fairly unknown blogger,” as media writer Mathew Ingram once put it, when in 2014 introduced a “freemium” model to his newsletter, offering daily entries for $100 a year, with one weekly post free. Within six months he had 1,000 paid subscribers. (His audience of entrepreneurs and investors has grown, and last year he raised his price to $120 a year.)
Quah, who cites Thompson as an influence, introduced a paid subscription tier that offered additional dispatches for an extra fee, now set at $70 a year or $7 a month; he also introduced help-wanted ads. By 2019, Hot Pod was bringing in about $150,000 a year, certainly much more than any job Quah had ever held.
Nearly six years after its launch, Hot Pod retains an open-ended, borderline rambling quality, flirting with business analysis and criticism without committing to either, and often crossing over into just self-indulgent thinking out loud.
The Cut’s Trufelman, the podcast host who has known Quah since college, remembers some of her professional peers being skeptical of him, as someone from outside “our world,” without the familiar credentials and time in the radio trenches. “He almost comes at it from a place of fandom — like someone who’s into classic cars or something,” she says. “Driven by passion, not some academic understanding of what should be good.”
And nearly six years after its launch, Hot Pod retains an open-ended, borderline rambling quality, flirting with business analysis and criticism without committing to either, and often crossing over into just self-indulgent thinking out loud. As an example, consider how Quah summarized news earlier this year that Amazon might be investing in “localized podcast content.” He generously credited an Axios writer with the scoop, before quickly pivoting to his take: “my general feeling on this story is a big ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”
As another example, in a recent item riffing off news that podcast producer Wondery is seeking a buyer. Quah wrote that “it looks like Wondery is assessing whether to go after the bag while the iron is still hot. (Wow, apologies for the many mixed metaphors.)” The 1,600-word item, nearly triple the length of the Bloomberg scoop that sparked it, rounded up all things Wondery in a way that was both comprehensive and laced with freeform asides — noting his distaste for one of Wondery’s hits but throwing in “not that it matters” parenthetical; passing along comments from the company’s founder but adding that he “didn’t have much time to adequately assess” them; and so on.
As Kafka, the media writer, points out, this style — either un-stuffy or somewhat amateurish, depending on your taste — may ultimately be a plus for the self-made expert. Quah gives off “the sense that he’s excited that he got to be in this world,” he says, not just someone who spotted a product-market fit and exploited it. “Without being too soft-hearted about it, I think that component is essential. He is an enthusiast.”
At one point in around 2019, Quah says, he seriously considered ramping up Hot Pod, raising investor money, and turning it into a self-made media company. “The models I had — I was looking around, looking at Kara Swisher, what she did at Recode, I’m looking at what Bill Simmons did with The Ringer,” he says. “I was like yeah, let’s fucking do this.”
But he didn’t. He is circumspect about why he pulled back, offering only that when he and his wife decided to move to Boise, he concluded this was not the time to try to launch a media startup. (Hot Pod currently has one regular outside contributor on contract and occasionally includes work from freelancers.) “I just wanted to focus on what I can do, and sort of sharpen my craft,” Quah says.
The current DIY expert economy isn’t really trending toward building up an organization; it’s trending toward individuality. Or at least that’s the aspiration.
This reorientation is what led him to pitch his own podcast to LAist. “I knew Nick, as I’d called on him before for advice,” says Kristen Muller, chief content officer for Southern California Public Radio, which launched LAist Studios last year. “I was thrilled when he pitched the idea. We got it off the ground within a few months.” Quah is a knowledgeable and attentive host, and his easy-going demeanor translates well to the format, but it’s not clear how much of an audience Servant of Pod has attracted. (One proxy: It has only about 75 reviews on Apple Podcasts, a fairly low number; Muller says she’s happy with the audience so far, and the show is “iterating.”)
But as a maneuver to burnish Quah’s self-made expert cred, the show makes sense. Really, the current DIY expert economy isn’t really trending toward building up an organization; it’s trending toward individuality. Or at least that’s the aspiration. The dream du jour is to be a Ben Thompson or a Scott Galloway or a Casey Newton (who has left The Verge to try the independent expert path), with a highly devoted personal following.
And as much as the expert economy seems to be on the upswing, the podcast economy feels like it’s headed toward a shakeout. The biggest events since the Serial breakthrough have all been on the business side, and largely involve acquisition and consolidation.
Hot Pod has dutifully documented all of this, but Quah avoids sweeping predictions about what comes next. Spotify’s acquisitions have “essentially reframed the entire space,” he says, inspiring other investors to place bets, not all of them sensible. He’s tough on specific players — notably Luminary, which attracted $100 million in investor money to make a play at being a sort of Netflix of podcasts by asking listeners to pay a monthly fee for exclusive access to certain shows. This is a radical departure from podcasting’s no-charge roots, and while Luminary threw lots of money at a lot of high-wattage talent, there’s little evidence of widespread traction. “Unless I’m really mistaken or I’m missing something,” Quah says, “I’m pretty sure that Luminary is dead.”
But almost as soon as he says this, he seems to be fishing for the upside. “I sound like a fucking asshole,” he says, pivoting to make the point that the creators who signed on with Luminary have been well-paid. “The fact that all these platforms have appeared that are willing to spend money is good for creators,” he says. “We just don’t know what the future looks like. We know right now that people are getting the opportunity to make shows and getting the opportunity to make moneymaking shows.”
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This equivocal tone is the flipside of the charming enthusiasm of the DIY expert. Some detractors think Quah isn’t enough of a journalist, or is too focused on prestige podcasts at the expense of more mainstream coverage; others charge that he ignores truly indie podcasts that aren’t part of the media business conversation. James Cridland, a British radio veteran and analyst based in Australia, calls Hot Pod a “great newsletter,” but argues that its “tight focus” left a “gap in the market” — which inspired him to launch a daily email called Podnews. Cridland has 30-plus years of audio experience, including work on podcasts dating back to 2005, and intends Podnews to “widen the coverage for podcasting.”
When I ran a set of critiques by Quah, his somewhat disconcerting response was essentially to agree with all of them — and in a weirdly amiable way. True, he says, he’s not a journalist. But more to the point, he doesn’t aspire to be one. “I like being a columnist/pundit/whatever that occasionally performs acts of journalism,” he says.
Another podcast creator with a mixed take on Quah called him “the kind of guy who raced up the mountain and planted the flag,” but added that it was time for podcasting to have more of a “critical infrastructure.” But getting there first is the whole point of seizing a specialized market; the payoff of carving out your own niche is to fill it as you see fit. While Quah is obsessive, he is selectively so, and he is unabashed about pursuing what interests him personally. (The pitch for Servant of Pod was framed as Quah giving a guided tour of contemporary podcasting.“It’s not the guide,” he clarified. “It is a guide. It’s my guide.”)
Back in 2014, when Quah first considered podcasting as a subject, it was much less viable as a career path. Makers of narrative audio had only a handful of choices, which largely boiled down to being a public radio serf, he says. “Right now we’re in this sort of weird transitionary phase,” he continues, “where like yes, Spotify may be cutting a bunch of these deals. Luminary might be cutting a bunch of these deals. Maybe some of this will work, maybe all of it will fail. The fact of the matter is that producers are getting paid.”
But he does not sound particularly convinced that this moment is going to last. “What is good for creators,” he says, “is not necessarily the same as what’s good for entrepreneurs and for business creation and media ownership.” While he’s talking about podcast creators, the message could just as easily be aimed at aspirants to the DIY expert economy, too: This moment can’t last forever, so act now.