With commuter audiences suddenly not commuting amid the Covid-19 quarantines, many podcasters likely feared the year would be a damaging one for the audio industry. And while professional-oriented shows did indeed see short-term audience drops, the podcast universe also grew considerably as homebound thought leaders began putting their energy into audio content.
That spirit of innovation and adaptation in the face of adversity is readily apparent in this year’s winners of nitronet’s Podcast of the Year Awards. Many of the shows are new to 2020, having been launched in quarantine, or were retooled to be more engaging in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Here are this year’s nitronet Podcast of the Year Awards winners, judged among all entries by a jury of professionals with direct podcasting experience:
Agency-Hosted Podcast of the Year
Voices of Resilience
After organizing a live music festival in 2019 with a focus on addressing issues of mental health, Columbus, Ohio, marketing agency The Shipyard was inspired to create a podcast in partnership with The Ohio State University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health that would continue advancing these conversations. Started in quarantine and initially focused on a local audience, the show—hosted by agency CEO Rick Milenthal—grew to have a global audience who share the agency’s passion for tearing down the stigmas around mental health.
Branded Podcast of the Year
Two winners were honored in this category:
Hypnopolis – a BMW Original Podcast
Jung von Matt, White Horse Music and California Music for BMW
Set in 2063, this sci-fi podcast introduces you to a world in which criminal cases are judged by an AI, with deep-sleep hibernation as the punishment for offenses. When a journalist awakens after a 30-year sentence for a crime she didn’t commit, she sets out to find the real perpetrator. The BMW brand plays a limited role in the 6-episode season, with the focus instead being on pushing the boundaries of audio entertainment.
The University of Chicago
Universities play vital roles in developing the innovations and discoveries that shape our world, but few have found effective ways of sharing those stories with the world in a compelling way. With Big Brains, the University of Chicago captivatingly tells how its faculty and research projects have addressed everything from the discovery of a lost society’s remains in the Sahara to the science of what drives conspiracy theories.
Creativity Podcast of the Year
Blockbuster: The Story of James Cameron
How did James Cameron overcome decades of obstacles on the path to becoming one of Hollywood’s most iconic directors? This 10-episode scripted podcast from Los Angeles-based production company Epicleff Media tells Cameron’s story from his time as a college dropout and truck driver to his nearly catastrophic effort to bring Titanic to the big screen. The show builds on the success of Blockbuster’s first season, winner of nitronet’s 2019 Creativity Podcast of the Year, this time requiring 200% more cast and crew.
Diversity and Inclusion Podcast of the Year
In The Thick
Futuro Media Group and Acast
Pledging to tell you the stories you’re missing from mainstream news, this twice-weekly podcast hosted by Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela was born from a desire to see more diverse representation in coverage of the 2016 presidential election. Whether discussing this campaign season’s debates or interviewing thought leaders across a range of topics, the podcast offers a potent and refreshing perspective amid a media landscape that can often seem like a sea of sameness.
Entrepreneurship Podcast of the Year
The Great Fail
What happens when you bring the vibe of a true-crime podcast to a topic like business obstacles? You get The Great Fail, a podcast that takes a forensic look at the deaths of iconic brands like Blockbuster, Toys R Us, Zima and Atari. Created, produced and hosted by business consultant Debra Chen, the show has grown organically and has evolved its subject matter to include less well-known stories of unraveled business ventures, such as the collapse of esports team Echo Fox.
Innovation Podcast of the Year
Dedicating each season to one topic, Foundering turns the reporting of Bloomberg Technology into a serialized podcast about one major business debacle. The current season is dedicated to the meteoric rise and failed IPO of WeWork, the coworking empire whose seemingly unstoppable momentum plummeted to earth in 2019—as co-founder Adam Neumann walked away with a $1.7 billion severance. Foundering was born out of a 2020 retooling of Bloomberg Technology’s earlier podcast, Decrypted, with the goal of giving the show a more dedicated focus on innovation and tech.
Interview Podcast of the Year
The Get Lost Podcast
Souled Outside Exploration Co.
Aiming to be “a defiant middle finger to the status quo in the world of travel publications,” The Get Lost Podcast features interviews with a wide of range of travelers and experts to inspire you with adventures that “that might curse, bankrupt or kill you.” Hosted, produced and edited by Joe Sills, the show’s second season built on the early promise of its first by adding an original theme song, more immersive openings and a VIP pool of guests including everyone from TV hosts to archaeologists.
Marketing Podcast of the Year
Sharing tales from the trenches of PR disasters, crises and impossible odds, Lead Balloon is the passion project of Dusty Weis, a former journalist and PR professional who launched Podcamp Media in 2019 to help brands tell their stories via podcasts. Describing the show’s focus as “public relations and marketing disaster stories, told by the comms professionals who lived them,” Weis has finally breathed life into an exciting an educational topic that, surprisingly, has rarely had a compelling platform until now.
Podcast Event of the Year
Debate: Coronavirus Will Reshape the World Order in China’s Favor
Intelligence Squared U.S.
When you think of a “podcast event,” you likely picture a live episode recorded with the hosts on stage—perhaps featuring celebrity guests, a musical interlude and some audience interaction. But with the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down live events, most podcasts simply skipped their live tours and other experiential offerings. The nonpartisan debate hosts at Intelligence Squared U.S., however, saw the opportunity to bring its debate podcasts into the virtual realm and expand them into global conversations, including its two-on-two debate about whether the pandemic will tilt the geopolitical chess board in China’s favor. The debate drew 200,000 viewers across all the organization’s platforms.
Publisher-Hosted Podcast of the Year
Go Off, Sis
Airing two seasons in 2020, this podcast from Refinery29’s Unbothered brand has tackled many of the year’s most important and polarizing topics through the lens of how they’ve affected the lives of Black women in America. While the show often tackles weighty topics, it does so in a way that’s energizing and refreshingly relatable for the show’s audience of women ages 18 to 35. Beginning as an IGTV show, Go Off, Sis evolved into a podcast now in its second year and produced by an all-Black, majority-female team.
Best Podcast Launched in Quarantine
Editor’s note: For the 2020 Podcast of the Year Awards, nitronet created a free-to-enter category for any podcast launched during the Covid-19 pandemic’s quarantine period.
Voices of Resilience
As described above, Voices of Resilience was created as an extension of Columbus marketing agency The Shipyard’s ongoing commitment to erasing the stigmas around mental health conversations. “Although 2020 has been a unique year full of stress and unprecedented challenges,” the agency says, the quarantine period inspired the shop’s leadership “to create a mental health community globally through connective storytelling.”
Best Podcast Site or App
The Plot Thickens website
Turner Classic Movies
Both a rich hub of content for existing fans and a well-organized introduction for newcomers, TCM’s website for The Plot Thickens packs in an impressive amount of content without ever feeling overwhelming. The Plot Thickens is TCM’s first podcast, with Season 1 dedicating seven episodes to the twists, turns and tragedies in the life of director Peter Bogdanovich.
Technology Podcast of the Year
Command Line Heroes
Now in its sixth season, Red Hat’s podcast tells the often surprising stories behind the personalities who created some of the world’s most iconic tech and software. While the show isn’t specifically about Red Hat, an open-source enterprise software company, the show’s creators say a survey of listeners has found that 95% recognize Red Hat as the brand behind the podcast.
Thought Leadership Podcast of the Year
Two winners were honored in this category:
Think with Google Podcast
Gimlet Media for Google
Launched in 2020 and aimed at professionals in the marketing and advertising worlds, Gimlet’s Think With Google Podcast was a five-episode limited series that looked at topics both weighty (the potential of cutting-edge machine learning) and enjoyably informative (such as the history of the Google doodle). Although the series was prepared for publication before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in force, the podcast team quickly pivoted their final episode—on the realities of being a modern CMO—to include perspectives on how the pandemic was reshaping the marketing landscape.
IPG Media Lab
Analyzing the intersection of technology and culture, Floor 9 hosts Adam Simon and Scott Elchison analyze news that matters to marketers and invite experts on for round-table discussions of the topic. Now in its third year, the show adapted in 2020 to be weekly instead of biweekly, allowing more timely coverage of pandemic-related news, and attracted a large pool of C-suite guests. For holding company IPG and media agency UM Worldwide, the show has become a popular resource for connecting with clients and industry peers alike.
TV/Streaming Podcast of the Year
Land of the Giants: The Netflix Effect
Recode journalists and hosts Peter Kafka and Rani Molla opened Season 2 of Land of the Giants: The Netflix Effect with interviews featuring Netflix execs, employees, talent and even CEO Reed Hastings. This season, the podcast expanded beyond tech listeners to everyday streaming consumers, secured a full-season sponsorship from business financial services platform Avalara, and set up for a Season 3.
Podcast Editor of the Year
Vice Media Group
Vice’s Painkiller podcast about America’s fentanyl crisis features many voices across four countries and three languages, creating an inclusive blend of audio that might pose a challenge in the editing process. But Avilés, who began her career in Bolivia before becoming an NPR correspondent and eventually an editor for long-form podcasts, preserves the voices of those living through the crisis in a way that’s both authentic and accessible. Colleagues say her role goes far beyond splicing audio, though: “She helped crystalize a thesis from a loosely formed pitch,” said senior reporter Keegan Hamilton, “pushing us to explore not just where fentanyl comes from and how it gets into the country, but also the systemic racism and the broken healthcare system at the root of the opioid epidemic.”
Podcast Episode of the Year
California Love, hosted by 2020 Podcast Innovator of the Year Walter Thompson-Hernández (see below), tells the often overlooked stories that defined parts of Los Angeles culture. In “P Line,” the show revisits one popular, if risqué, form of pre-internet social networking: the Hollywood Party Line. Through fun recreations and reminiscences, the episode brings a largely forgotten experience back to life for a new generation of listeners.
Podcast Executive of the Year
Vp of Audio
Vice Media Group
With a career that started in college community radio, Osborn has become one of the audio industry’s most notable leaders. Focusing on immersion as a key driver of innovation and quality for Vice Audio, Osborn aims for each audio project to take listeners inside a story and the lives of those telling it. Her leadership has helped Vice Audio look beyond borders, too, growing its podcast portfolio through multiple languages and forging partnerships in territories including Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region.
Podcast Host of the Year
Host of Somebody
Co-production of Topic Studios, The Intercept, the Invisible Institute and iHeartRadio, in association with Tenderfoot TV.
An activist and mother of six, Shapearl Wells brings her full self to this podcast about the murder of her son, Courtney Copeland. Wells decided to work with journalists to take the investigation into her own hands, delivering an unfiltered view of a grieving Black mother. Her storytelling, closeness to the topic and authentic frustration showcases how Wells is, as producer Bill Healy says, “a model for how to speak about your own life with rigor and complexity.”
Podcast Innovator of the Year
Two winners were honored in this category:
Host, California Love
Stories of Los Angeles often focus on Hollywood’s fame and glamour, but Thompson-Hernández brings a more unfiltered view into the stories of the L.A. residents he chats with on his first podcast, California Love. Be it straight from his family home, horseback riding through Compton streets, or any other locations in Los Angeles, Walter’s authenticity innovates storytelling in podcasting, giving California Love listeners a much more intimate look into the diverse communities of Southern California. Thompson-Hernández was previously a journalist for The New York Times and recently published the nonfiction book The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland.
Founder and CEO
With the evolution of audio content rivaling that of video, Jared Gutstadt founded podcast studio Audio Up Media in 2019. The move came about a decade after launching Jingle Punks, a media company he sold to Ole Media Management in 2015. With Audio Up, Gutstadt aims to grow the podcast experience beyond just audio programs, becoming an entertainment company with advertising and marketing offerings as well. So far he has launched podcasts with celebrities including Dennis Quaid and Tommy Lee, and Audio Up’s Make It Up As We Go is bringing the world of musicals to the podcast medium with a scripted series about an aspiring country music star.
Gutstadt was also honored in the Podcast Producer of the Year category.
Podcast Network of the Year
Vox Media Podcast Network
Executives: Marty Moe, Nishat Kurwa, Liz Nelson, Hanna Rosin
Already an established force in the audio industry—taking home several of nitronet’s Podcast of the Year honors in 2019, including the top prize for its show Recode Decode—Vox Media Podcast Network has continued to grow at a considerable pace. In just the past year, the network’s downloads are up 50%, and one of its anchor podcasts, Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, was expanded to two episodes weekly to meet audience and advertiser demand. With shows like Nice Try!, The Ezra Klein Show, The Weeds and more, the network reports it has significantly surpassed its 2019 revenue numbers, and in September the network announced its first branded podcast: Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, in partnership with Ben & Jerry’s.
Podcast Producer of the Year
Two winners were honored in this category:
Combining atmospheric audio and hip-hop beats for the podcast California Love, Tan exemplifies how a producer can amplify and enhance a host’s creative expression. With past experience in Gimlet Media’s The Habitat, NPR’s Planet Money, and Radiotopia’s Millennial, Tan’s careful balance between art and technical prowess brings listeners a new level of immersive journalism with California Love (whose host, Walter Thompson-Hernández, was honored above).
See above to learn about Gutstadt’s work, also honored in the Podcast Innovator of the Year category.
2020 Podcast of the Year (Best in Show)
nitronet’s top honoree will be announced Tuesday, Oct. 27, on nitronet.com.
Don’t miss nitronet’s virtual event, How Brands Found Their Voice With Audio, on Oct. 27, featuring thought leaders from NPR, Pandora, Refinery29, Headspace and more. Click here to RSVP for this free event.