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Plant-based Entertainment: Herbal Podcasts Find Their Audience

By Hannah Bauman

Podcasts, or digital audio files made available for download or streaming, have taken root as a popular form of entertainment and educational media. They are similar to radio shows and serve as a platform for serialized fiction or nonfiction stories, celebrities who want to control their image, journalists who bring information directly to listeners, and more. In the herbal medicine and natural products fields, the offerings are also varied: Professors talk about their research, scientists discuss the latest findings in their field, and herbalists become storytellers.

The accessibility of the format means that more people than ever before are listening. However, the ease of starting a podcast, which can be done with little equipment and technical expertise, has led to more hosts competing for an audience. Unusual topics that fill an underexplored niche are more likely to succeed, as are hosts who are experts in their field of study. Podcast hosts seeking to engage their audiences take different approaches to the style, content, and message of their shows.

For ethnobotanist and author Mark Plotkin, PhD, his podcast show “Plants of the Gods: Hallucinogens, Healing, Culture and Conservation”1 honors the legacy of his primary academic mentor: the “Father of Ethnobotany” and Harvard Professor Richard Evans Schultes, PhD (1915–2001). Schultes researched entheogenic plants (i.e., those that produce an unordinary state of consciousness for religious and/or spiritual purposes) used by Indigenous peoples in the Americas and is famous for his exploration and plant research in the Amazon in the 1930s and 1940s.

“When [Schultes] retired, he handed me his lecture notes for his very famous course Bio 104, ‘Plants and Human Affairs,’” Plotkin said (oral communication, April 19, 2022). “So, I’ve got all these notes, written in his hand, and I thought if I don’t find some way to pass this along, it will die with me.”

“Plants of the Gods” episodes feature Plotkin discussing topics related to psychoactive plants. These episodes, which he records off the cuff from his notes and then edits later, take a more narrative approach to podcasting. He hopes this approach will help him stand out from the sea of other interview-based or conversational podcasts.

Aviva Romm, MD, however, finds great value in interviews. Her show, “Natural MD Radio Podcast,”2 often features guests, and she discusses topics related to health and natural medicine for women and children. “I like talking with other folks, and it’s a great vehicle to do that and bring ideas to my community,” she said (oral communication, April 19, 2022). “I look for people who have actual experience, and ideally people who have training and credentials. I try to lean into finding guests that are not typically interviewed [and are] going to add value. Diverse voices are important as well.”

In some episodes, she speaks alone on a topic. “Humans are hard-wired to learn from storytelling, and podcasts allow people to return to that,” she said. “[Podcasting] taps into something extremely primal in humans: to hear narratives in the form of storytelling or interviews.”

Cassandra Quave, PhD, author and associate professor of dermatology and human health at Emory University, creates some episodes of her show “Foodie Pharmacology”3 as supplementary or primary material for the classes she teaches. “It offers a nice alternative format than just a regular lecture,” she said (oral communication, April 25, 2022). “People seem to enjoy that.”

Other “Foodie Pharmacology” episodes include interviews with experts exploring different facets of the same topic: the way that food, plants, and culture interact with human health. “This format of interviewing really has been great for networking with a diverse array of individuals who share a passion for food and its role in culture and health,” Quave said. “I’ve had Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and best-selling authors, a couple different James Beard Award-winning chefs, a Nobel Prize winner: just amazing people who are doing incredible work in their respective fields.”

Plotkin, Romm, and Quave all want to bring something new to an often-oversaturated market. There are an estimated 2 million to 3 million podcast shows, with approximately 48 million episodes.4 According to Edison Research’s The Infinite Dial, a long-running media research study, in 2022, an estimated 109 million people in the United States, or approximately 38% of the population, listened to a podcast in the previous month.5

Bar chart showing podcast listening numbers

“If you want to put something out there, it’s got to have a hook, or an appeal,” Plotkin said. “I just did my first interview, and I will do more of them, but I don’t want to [interview] … all the same people who are all on the same podcasts. Otherwise, there’s no value added. Why listen to mine? Why not listen to somebody else?”

Podcast production can be time-consuming and involves scheduling interviews, script writing, audio recording, and editing. Podcasts often generate little to no income on their own. When hosts do receive income from their projects, it is often through third-party sponsorship or ad revenue. Rates can vary widely depending on the show’s audience size, the length of the advertisement, and the placement of the advertisement within the show. However, a 30-second advertisement on a show with an average of 10,000 listeners typically can bring in $150-$250 per episode.6

Ann Armbrecht, PhD, director of the Sustainable Herbs Program (SHP), decided to convert SHP’s free webinars into an audio-only podcast format in 2021.7 As she explained, a podcast can be more convenient than watching a recording (email, May 11, 2022). “The podcast world is crowded, though,” she commented. “I’ve been interviewed on a number of podcasts and it can be a wonderful format, … but it also is a lot of work to produce and get the word out.”

Quave explained that her show’s transition from lectures and monographs to interviews was driven by the amount of work required. “Moving toward this format of interviews definitely made it easier for production, because I wasn’t generating 100% of the content for every episode,” she said. “The challenge with this model is that I’m always scouting for talent, basically…. Because we don’t have sponsors, we don’t have a lot of invested money, [and] it’s volunteered time that we put into it. It does take a good amount of time, and I have a busy, active, normal job between teaching and running a big lab group and curating the [Emory University Herbarium].”

With so much competition and time involved, why do hosts choose the podcast format? Because listeners can access shows from a variety of platforms and devices, podcasts can be dynamic, engaging, and convenient. Listeners can tune in on their own schedule, from anywhere. According to Infinite Dial, most people listen to podcasts on smartphones.5

Bar chart showing use of smartphones vs. computers

Romm knows that her audience appreciates it. “Women love narrative and are always on the go,” she said. “So many of my listeners are dropping their kids off at school, they want formats that they can plug in to, whatever it is they’re out and about doing.”

Quave has tried to make her show as accessible as possible, including uploading videos of her interviews to her YouTube channel for those who prefer a visual format.

The COVID-19 pandemic correlated with a spike in podcast listening in 2020 and 2021, and though listenership dropped slightly in 2022, the overall number still exceeds that of 2019.5 Hosts who are responsive to audience interest can maintain and grow their listener base, and flexibility and new ideas can allow for growth. Quave introduced interviews to balance the amount of work required, and Plotkin is expanding into interviews in his new season. His goal is to bring new voices to the discussion of plants and human health. The key, he said, is for hosts to be as interested in learning as they are in teaching. Romm is planning to broaden her scope in the future. She hopes that including conversations about the economy, mental health, and relationships can combat what she perceives as some polarized and outdated notions of natural medicine.

Audiences who are interested in the wide range of topics pertaining to herbal medicine have many options (see “A Sampling of Herbal Podcasts,” below). The topics range from folk herbalism to natural products chemistry, and hosts with varied areas of expertise are eager to communicate their knowledge to their audience.

A Sampling of Herbal Podcasts*

Medicinal plant sustainability: “The Sustainable Herbs Program Podcast by Ann Armbrecht, PhD7

Plant chemistry:Natural Prodcast by the Joint Genome Institute8

Plant medicine, wild foods, and botany:HerbRally Podcast by Mason Hutchison9

Interviews and lessons with leading herbalists: “Herbal Radio by Mountain Rose Herbs10

Psychoactive plants and human relations:Plants of the Gods by Mark Plotkin, PhD1

Intersection of food, culture, and health:Foodie Pharmacology by Cassandra Quave, PhD3

Women and children’s health perspectives:Natural MD Radio Podcast by Aviva Romm, MD2

Plant spirituality and Indigenous issues:The Herbal Highway by Karyn Sanders and Sarah Holmes11

 

*The American Botanical Council does not necessarily endorse the views represented in these shows.

Image credits:

All images ©2022 Edison Research

References

  1. The Plants of the Gods. Mark Plotkin website. Available at: https://markplotkin.com/podcast/. Accessed May 5, 2022.
  2. Natural MD Radio Podcast. Aviva Room website. Available at: https://avivaromm.com/category/natural/natural-md-radio/. Accessed May 5, 2022.
  3. Foodie Pharmacology Podcast. Podbean website. Available at: https://foodiepharmacology.podbean.com/. Accessed May 5, 2022.
  4. Winn R. 2021 Podcast Stats and Facts (New Research from April 2021). Podcast Insights. December 28, 2021. Available at: www.podcastinsights.com/podcast-statistics/. Accessed May 2, 2022.
  5. Edison Research. Podcasting’s Key Statistics for 2022. Edison Research website. March 30, 2022. Available at: www.edisonresearch.com/podcastings-key-statistics-for-2022/. Accessed May 2, 2022.
  6. Molenaar K. A Full Guide to Podcast Sponsorship and Ad Rates (2022). Influencer Marketing Hub. May 3, 2022. Available at: https://influencermarketinghub.com/podcast-sponsorship-ad-rates/. Accessed May 12, 2022.
  7. Sustainable Herbs Program Podcast. SHP website. September 15, 2021. Available at: https://sustainableherbsprogram.org/sustainable-herbs-program-podcast/. Accessed May 10, 2022.
  8. News and Publications. Joint Genome Institute website. Available at: https://jgi.doe.gov/category/podcasts/natural-prodcast/. Accessed May 5, 2022.
  9. HerbRally Podcast. HerbRally website. Available at: www.herbrally.com/podcast. Accessed May 5, 2022.
  10. Herbal Radio Presented by Mountain Rose Herbs. Mountain Rose Herbs website. Available at: https://mountainroseherbs.com/herbal-education/herbal-radio/. Accessed May 5, 2022.
  11. KPFA: The Herbal Highway. Apple Podcasts website. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/kpfa-the-herbal-highway/id78624707. Accessed May 5, 2022.
References