Crime Does Pay: ‘My Favorite Murder’ Stars Join Joe Rogan As Nation’s Highest-Earning Podcasters.
My Favorite Murder was born, fittingly enough, at a Halloween party in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2015. The gathering was thrown by a mutual friend of the podcast’s future cohosts, Karen Kilgariff, a standup comic and comedy writer, and Georgia Hardstark, a host on the Cooking Channel. The women had met before. But “it wasn’t until this party that we realized we were both really into true crime and didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it,” says Hardstark, 39. “I met someone who … didn’t want me to shut up about murder.”
Millions of others, it turns out, didn’t want them to shut up either. Listeners can’t get enough of the pair’s darkly humorous tales about murderers like Scott Scurlock, the Hollywood Bandit, and Robert Hansen, the Butcher Baker of Anchorage, Alaska. Today My Favorite Murder gets 35 million downloads a month, and last year it was the seventh-most-popular podcast on Apple Podcasts, ahead of repurposed programming like NPR’s Fresh Air and This American Life.
The duo’s little true-crime empire is growing. In the past year, they’ve performed 40 live shows; published a New York Times bestseller (Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, a nod to their show’s catchphrase); signed a development deal with podcast publisher Stitcher worth at least $10 million; and built a 55,000-person fan club—members pay $40 annually for exclusive episodes and access to presale tickets to live shows.
In other words, the duo is killing it, and their earnings show it. They made an estimated $15 million in 2019, placing them at No. 2 on Forbes’ inaugural ranking of the top-earning podcasters. That’s no small feat. There are more than 900,000 podcasts in circulation, according to podcast search engine Listen Notes. Few do the kind of numbers Murder sees. Only comedian Joe Rogan (No. 1, $30 million) made more, although finance guru Dave Ramsey (No. 3, $10 million) is close behind them.
When the Murder team started in 2016, the business was still dominated by National Public Radio but growing fast. Ad spend had risen 73% year-over-year and was projected to hit $515 million by 2019, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. They were off by more than $100 million.
“The industry has only been around for about a decade, but in the last three or four years it’s really started maturing,” said Oren Rosenbaum, head of emerging platforms at United Talent Agency (UTA) who represents the My Favorite Murder duo as well as other podcasters like Guy Raz, the host of How I Built This.
Advertisers likely spent close to $700 million on podcasts in 2019, according to estimates by the IAB and PWC, a nearly seven-fold increase. Last year, streaming giant Spotify spent $250 million to beef up its podcast offerings with the purchase of producers Gimlet and Parcast, while Luminary launched with the goal of becoming the Netflix of audio. Apple, the industry’s creator and de facto gatekeeper, is reportedly planning its own production effort for the first time.
Hollywood has gotten in on the action, too. All three major talent agencies—UTA, William Morris Endeavor and Creative Artists Agency—have started representing podcasts over the last several years. In 2019, Netflix and WME’s parent company, Endeavor, released scripted podcasts that have the potential to be turned into film or television. Even Mick Jagger jumped in, signing a podcast production deal last month with Warner Bros.
“A lot of people were dabbling in it, maybe finding one show they liked, and now those people are finding two or three shows that they like,” says Bruce Supovitz, senior vice president and sales director for Nielsen’s national audio services. “The lighter user is becoming a heavier user.”
And the biggest stars are cashing in. When Spotify bought Gimlet last year, cofounder and Startup host Alex Blumberg, along with the company’s other investors, pocketed $194 million. Ira Glass, after 20 years hosting and producing This American Life for WBEZ, took the program private in 2015. While still paying out a chunk of revenue every year to Chicago Public Media, Glass has already produced two films based on This American Life segments since going independent.
Count Kilgariff and Hardstark among the stars. In 2018, they created their own podcast network, Exactly Right. They’ve already greenlit five shows, including This Podcast Will Kill You, which features two epidemiologists who take a sanguine approach to infectious diseases. Last year they signed a deal with podcast publisher Stitcher, worth at least $10 million, that will help them finance show development and build up staff.
“People are realizing that podcasting is special,” says Kilgariff. “I think people are isolated and really lonely.” And in the case of My Favorite Murder, “it’s nice to listen and process terrible (things) together. There’s something really cathartic about that.”
Here’s a look at what the top earners pulled in from their flagship titles: