This story originally ran in Hot Pod Insider, The Verge’s newsletter about podcasting and the audio industry. Sign up here.
Last year, Australian psychology graduate Jemma Sbeg had a straightforward idea for a podcast: apply the psychological concepts she had learned to the common issues faced by people in their 20s. Sbeg, 22, signed up for Anchor, Spotify’s DIY podcast creation and distribution tool, and started recording in the back of her Subaru Forester. Covering topics like jealousy, climate anxiety, and attraction, she accrued about 15,000 downloads in her first 10 months. Not bad for an Anchor podcast but nothing to write home about.
Then, a switch flipped — in April, she published an episode on loneliness that took off. She still doesn’t know exactly why. Listenership stayed high and grew, and six months later, she found herself on Spotify’s top podcast chart. Today, The Psychology of your 20’s has amassed 1.4 million downloads and is ranked in the top 10 of Spotify’s podcast charts in the US, UK, and Australia. In the US, it sits three spots ahead of The Daily and 10 above Call Her Daddy.
“When you look at the top 10, 20 podcasts, the majority of them are either celebrities or people with massive studio backing,” Sbeg told Hot Pod. “It’s amazing because there’s room for everyone.”
Spotify has certainly made it its mission to create that space, racking up 4.7 million podcasts on its platform thanks in large part to Anchor. The promise of Anchor is that anyone with a recording device and a subscription can become the next big podcast host. But that promise often goes unfulfilled, with self-made shows struggling to be heard among a sea of content. Sbeg’s success has shown that, if exceedingly unlikely, growing an audience through Anchor is possible.
The Psychology of your 20’s seems to have broken out for a few reasons. After reaching out to Spotify, Sbeg was told that her straightforward show title and episode topics make the podcast easy to understand from a glance. There is also the fact that Sbeg’s show is aimed primarily, if not exclusively, at women in their 20s, a majorly untapped market. (It’s worth noting that Spotify is going after the same demo with its new deal with Emma Chamberlain). And then there is just plain luck — sometimes an episode catches on, as was the case with “Loneliness,” and there is no rhyme or reason.
The show is currently ranked No. 8 in the US (after peaking at No. 4 last week), but that doesn’t mean it is the eighth most listened to show in the country. Spotify’s podcast charts appear to be heavily influenced by new listeners — it’s why you see new shows that debut with some success rocket to the top, only to fall off the chart entirely a few weeks later. It also means that what you are looking at is not exactly a ranking of the most listened to shows; it’s a trend chart. Growth is the key factor, which is why, at 70,000 downloads per episode, The Psychology of your 20’s outranks the likes of Crime Junkie and The Daily, shows with many more times its listenership.
If that feels a little deceptive, it also makes for a significant discovery tool. If you just ranked the shows with the most downloads at any given time, the chart would look a lot more like Edison’s, which mostly features the same shows over and over again. (Though shout-out to the Edison chart. It’s a good chart.) The Spotify chart may be less precise, but it can help upstart shows like Sbeg’s get some visibility and capitalize on momentum.
Sbeg says her position on the charts has brought in new listeners who are not only tuning in to new episodes but also combing through the back catalog. While most of her listeners come from word-of-mouth recommendations, that is starting to change. “In the last two weeks, people have begun saying ‘I started listening today because I saw you on the Spotify charts or because Spotify recommended it to me.’”
That doesn’t mean she can quit her day job yet. Sbeg works as a mental health consultant in Sydney and plans to pursue a clinical psychology degree. The podcast, meanwhile, does not yet earn enough for her to make a living.
Part of that is due to Anchor’s limitations outside the US. Sbeg offers a subscription for $2 per month through Anchor and has carefully selected a few sponsors for the show. But because she is based in Australia, she does not have access to Anchor’s dynamic advertising tool. “If it was a US-based podcast, I am pretty sure I could definitely be making a living,” Sbeg said. “But it’s kind of rough. You have to do it all by yourself in Australia.”
Still, the new spotlight she has found could lead to more opportunities in the future. Sbeg says she now gets offers for guest appearances and book deals. Most importantly, she has built a community of listeners who reach out about how they related to the podcast. That community-building aspect has been key to the success of monster hits like My Favorite Murder and Call Her Daddy.
As The Psychology of your 20’s gets bigger, Sbeg wants to make sure she continues to serve that community. “I don’t write or publish anything unless I can personally relate to it because, then, it just doesn’t seem authentic,” she says.