Lindsay Graham got fired from his insurance job. So he built a podcast empire.

Lindsay Graham headshot

May 31, 2022 | By Matt Miller, Sr. Copywriter

Counter to conventional internet wisdom, Lindsay Graham always reads the comments. It’s the first thing the award-winning host, editor, and producer of beloved podcasts like American History Tellers and American Scandal does every morning. He reads the reviews of his own podcasts. “There’s some debate about whether this is healthy or not, but I read every one of them,” Graham says. “I can’t help myself. It’s certainly instructive. It tells you who the audience is.”

By keeping tabs on this direct feedback, Graham is able to measure the pulse of his listeners. He can tell when a show is going through a period of audience growth. Sometimes he’ll get listeners who correct his own facts. He’ll get a read on what they think of his music, and he’ll take steps to adjust accordingly, if needed.

This ability to read the room, to take the temperature of American society, is how Graham has successfully produced some of the most popular podcasts of the last decade. Along with Wondery behemoths American History Tellers (George Clooney is among its fans) and American Scandal, Graham has his own podcast company Airship and has worked on Dirty John, Dr. Death, Business Wars, and American Elections: Wicked Game.

But in order to build this podcast empire, he first had to get fired from his marketing job.

American History Tellers podcast cover
Business Movers podcast cover
American Scandal podcast cover

Creating a popular podcast means knowing your audience

Graham always had an interest in audio. In 2014, he was moonlighting as a musician and composer outside of his day job doing marketing for an insurance company. That marketing work, though, he didn’t like so much.

“I hated working there,” Graham says. “And I think that’s probably why I was fired to begin with. But it gave me the opportunity to try something radical.”

He asked his wife for her blessing to see if he could build a career out of audio. He found a partner who had a lot of experience in audiobooks, and they started a business creating content for Audible. They also created a podcast. This was right after the breakout success of Serial, and podcasting was rapidly becoming a new favorite way of consuming information. They put together a fictional audio drama podcast called Terms, which proved to be eerily predictive of the dramatic 2016 election. It caught the ear of Wondery founder Hernan Lopez, who saw the potential of audio drama as part of the growth of podcasting. Even though Terms was well-received, Graham still wasn’t making enough through podcasting to support his family.

After 18 months, he left his audio career behind and found a new marketing job. However, it wasn’t long before podcasting came calling again. Lopez reached out with an offer for Graham to do ads for Dirty John, a new podcast that has since been adapted into a Bravo series. That’s when Lopez also told Graham about an idea Wondery had for a history podcast.

“It was an enormous leap of faith on his part because he hadn’t heard me other than in an ad, and he knew that I could sound design, but nothing else,” Graham says.

Graham said yes, and they started working on a show called American History Tellers. This is a key moment where that ability to take the temperature of their audience proved to be a stroke of genius.

“It was built out of the moment we were in. It was the first few months of this brand-new era in American and global politics,” Graham says of the podcast, which debuted in January 2018. “For me, there was a mission to educate listeners on the fact that sea changes like this have happened before.”

That intuition was correct, because the show debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes podcast chart. It was lightning in a bottle, as Graham says. American History Tellers was an immediate hit.

“We had no idea that it would be the success that it was, but I think there were some smart things done in terms of building something new for an audience that you don’t quite understand yet,” Graham says. “You use your intuition, and your experience, and you also listen to audiences.”

For the first few months, Graham was juggling writing, editing, narrating, and sound designing a breakout success podcast with a marketing job and the rest of life. “But I couldn’t quit my day job because it was too frightening,” he remembers.

So, he decided to give himself more work.

Seeing the growing popularity of true crime in American culture, Graham dreamt up the idea of a new show called American Scandal and brought it to Wondery. The day he signed the contract on American Scandal, Graham sent in his notice to quit his marketing job. American Scandal debuted in September 2018, and within less than a year, Graham was producing two of the most popular podcasts around.

Now in its 45th season, American History Tellers was an instant hit for Wondery, debuting at No. 1 on the iTunes podcast chart in 2018.

What brands can learn from successful podcasting

Since 2018, Graham has launched his own podcasting company, Airship, and has a portfolio of other successful shows. And he has made careful, deliberate choices to differentiate his specific podcasts. For example, Tellers has a detached omniscient narrator, while Scandal feels very first-person and is fully scored with music. Graham knows that the Tellers audience tends to lean more male, while Scandal is more of a female audience, which aligns with wider industry breakdowns between history and true crime shows. Tellers is also often used in classrooms because of its more strict, historical, and instructive nature.

Along the way, he’s closely followed which topics are being broadly discussed in wider American culture to inform other new podcasts, like American Elections: Wicked Game, which launched during the 2020 presidential election campaigns.

Of launching podcasts deliberately timed to current events and interests, “all of those decisions were made on purpose,” Graham says. “It’s always reading the room to an extent, and it’s largely intuitive.”

This is a skill brands can use to better understand their own audiences.

“Authenticity is the magic ingredient in any interaction. No one wants to be sold to, or at least recognized as being sold to,” Graham says. “Inauthenticity is always apparent. I’ve had a bit of experience in the branded podcast world, and this is really important: The impulse to get the lawyer approved, PR-stamped bullet points through in podcasting is counterproductive. You want to engage the audience with a good story, and I think finding authentic ways to weave in your brand's message is very, very difficult. But imperative.”

Podcasting, Graham says, is like the streaming equivalent to radio that streaming TV was to traditional linear TV. Now all this content is available on demand at any time, anywhere. And podcast advertising has also proven to be a valuable for brands, according to Graham. “There is a trust and immediacy to the medium,” Graham says. “Advertisers are not shying away from podcasting. The proof is in the pudding. More advertisers are entering the space than leaving.”

Intention and authenticity are important. And Graham is very purposeful with his podcasts and how they can inform and influence his listeners. Graham’s podcasts have often been praised for the way they re-examine the histories of underrepresented groups and how they provide the context to better understand our present day.

“I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that I really wish my podcasts would change the world. It’s cliché, but to an extent I wish they would, and I think they can through an increase in empathy and understanding,” Graham says. “The giants of American history—Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, whoever—they are complex, nuanced individuals dealing with complex, nuanced situations. None of their base human instincts ever go away. There were just as many villains and trolls as there are now. Humans haven’t changed. What has changed is our ability to understand and empathize with the different situations of others.”

Going forward, Graham’s podcast empire will only continue to grow. He’s very interested in what he calls the “curiosity space,” where consumers go to learn about things like science, technology, medicine, self-help, and psychology.

“There is a broad horizon of topics and places I want to be,” Graham says. Maybe he’ll find the next answer in the comments.

Listen to the American History Tellers podcast on Wondery, and learn more about how to grow your brand with audio ads.