James Cridland

A chat with a “podcast promoter”

I’m on LinkedIn, not because I want to be, particularly, but because I kind of have to be. It’s normally full of people who want to brag about doing four hours of work and a gym session before 8am, or people who are breathlessly announcing their new B2B comms agency. Or, occasionally, people searching for people who used to work in the UK and have now moved to Australia, so they can cold-call them and talk to them about pensions. I get a lot of the latter.

I’m on LinkedIn because I publish a daily podcast newsletter, Podnews. It’s free, and you should subscribe. I occasionally discover news on LinkedIn, and there’s also an audience there.

LinkedIn has a messaging service, and a bloke sends me a message. I’ll call him Gary. It isn’t his real name: even though he claims to be in a part of California on his LinkedIn profile, he looks Indian, the name he uses on LinkedIn sounds Indian, the background of his LinkedIn profile looks distinctly un-Californian, and English may not be his first language. I mean: he could be in California, but it’s 3.30am there when he messages me. I suspect he isn’t.

I am a professional podcast promoter iTunes store and YouTube and providers.

Gary offers “real human traffic” and will promote my podcast all over the place. He appears to have worked at this for a very long time, until I look a little more closely at his LinkedIn profile and realise little of his timeline makes any sense.

Podcast promoters work by fixing the Apple Podcasts Charts. Promoters started to offer this service in May 2018, and it was relatively obvious for a time that the chart was being manipulated. It’s not illegal itself, but it’s not particularly ethical either. They mostly work by having human beings operate a bunch of computers at once, faking downloads and subscriptions.

There’s a feeling that appearing higher in the Apple Podcast Charts means more people will find your podcast. That’s not entirely proved, especially in some of the smaller charts that exist in the depths of the Apple Podcasts app; and in any case, Apple’s only responsible for about 60% of all podcast downloads: but it’s still something some people care about.

I ask Gary a few questions about the “real human traffic”. He promotes podcasts using websites and social media, apparently. He promises me they’re real humans, proper organic traffic. I ask him for some examples — hoping to see some social media posts or something. But instead, Gary sends me some screenshots of his customers.

One screenshot is a set of emails from an annoying gym-buffed mind-over-matter American personal growth guru. He spent over $950 to get his podcast promoted with Gary. I check the Apple Podcast Chart genre that he’s paid for, and there he is, with his wide neck and his smug face, within the top 10. He’s happy with the service Gary offers, by the looks of his emails to Gary. (He calls Gary a slightly different name, but uses the same email address; as I understand it, he uses a lot of these services).

Another screenshot shows chats with an awful personal trainer who witters on about positivity and shares motivational nonsense on their Facebook page. They’re delighted with Gary’s work, and tell him so, albeit they know Gary as someone else. They, too, appear suspiciously high in the Apple Podcast Chart.

And a third set of screenshots is a chat with a bleached-teeth guy in a suit who works in the financial sector. He appears to spend over $280 every month for his podcast promotion. I know this because I have a screenshot of his payment: I know who supplies his bank card, and I know the last four digits on it. His podcast has been on Apple for quite a few years; but he only started in the Apple Podcast Charts towards the end of last year, when he arrived from nowhere for his particular genre, debuting at #25, and remaining at almost exactly #25 ever since. He thinks Gary’s great — though, while Gary’s email address is the same, Gary calls himself something else to white-teeth-suit-guy.

So, that’s three podcasts that I now have proof that are being manipulated in the charts.

Gary is eager to please. He’d like me to trial his services, and then, if I like them, he’ll put me onto contract. I tell him he’s clearly very good at his job, while I research the ripped-growth-guru who must be one of the inspirations for the parody guru Dexter Guff, and then look up dazzling-teeth-and-suit financial guy.

I sense there’s a story here, featuring annoying American huxters, spending vain cash to see their vain, stupid faces at the top of a vain, stupid, pointless chart, and me being able to wave their fake chart positions at them and see how they like it.

I wonder how best to chat to teeth/suit/finance guy, who’s personal email address I have. Do I start by talking about his credit card number, to make it clear I know what he’s up to: or, do I start by innocently asking how he suddenly appeared at #25 in his chosen genre in the Apple Podcast chart and hasn’t moved? “What are your secrets? And who is your dentist?”

Gary, meanwhile, is eager to sign me up. He comes across as a nice man. He’s keen to help me promote my podcast.

I look at Gary’s picture, which probably isn’t Gary. He seems decent. He wants a chance. “Just a little cost okay”, he says.

He adds: “I hate cheats that’s why am working hard to make an honest living”.

I look at the vain idiots who have used his services. They’re all desperate fools, who believe that a fictitious place on a useless chart will somehow make them almost as rich and happy as their biographies claim they are. But the only people they’re ripping off is themselves — none of their podcasts contain any advertising. Nobody else is losing money. I feel sorry for the famous guy who most of them have interviewed, before realising that the famous guy is just as much of a moronic vain hustler as the people who interviewed him.

I like Gary. And he is working hard to make an honest living. His honest living is to take money from vain idiots, and deliver them a place on a chart in return. Gary does that, and he does it well, and the vain idiots are happy. And sure, some other podcasters are a little lower in the charts than they’d otherwise be; but if that’s the extent of Gary’s crime, it’s hardly the worst thing in the world.

Who am I take $350 a month away from Gary and Gary’s family by being a clever-clogs? I look up the average monthly income in India. It’s $168. Why does Gary deserve losing that income? The vain idiots can easily afford it, judging by their dental work and clothing.

So I fess up. I tell Gary I’m a journalist. I write about people who try to fix the Apple Podcast charts, I admit. He pauses for a few minutes, the indicator on Linked In flicking on and off as he composes a reply.

“I understand,” he says. I ask if he is working for any of the large podcast companies, and name a few. “I haven’t had the good fortune to work with them,” he replies.

Then: “Do you want my services?” Gary asks. I don’t think he’s got it.

“I don’t, Gary,” I reply. “But I also don’t want to take money away from you. You have a good day — and let me know if you hear about some of the big companies using podcast promoters like you.”

“God bless you,” says Gary.

I told you he was a nice man.

  • I publish a daily newsletter, Podnews, that is your daily briefing for podcasting and on-demand. You can subscribe to get it in your email inbox every day; or find Podnews on a podcasting app near you.