Five Stars Because They Tell It Like It Is: A Parasocial Examination of Mainstream, Conservative and Far-right Reviews on Apple Podcasts
Podcasts routinely engender loyal communities of fans and listeners based on emotional choices and perceptions; those decisions reflect parasocial phenomena, or perceived personal interactions and relationships between media producers and consumers. A mixed-methods analysis of Apple Podcast reviews indicate frequent parasocial interactions and relationships among reviews of mainstream news podcasts, conservative news podcasts and far-right pod- casts; qualitatively, the frequency and intensity of those emotions were strongest among far-right reviewers. Quantitatively, a computerized content analysis (CATA) of roughly 21,000 Apple Podcast reviews indicates that reviewers of mainstream news podcasts express emotion, connection, praise and loyalty significantly less frequently than reviewers of conservative and far-right podcasts, as well as true crime, sports and business podcasts. Findings suggest main- stream podcast journalists within the United States solicit parasocial phenomena and emotional bonds less frequently, and with less intensity, than listeners of a variety of other podcasts, including conspiracy-driven far-right podcasts.
Successful mainstream podcasts often feel very personal and intimate. Listeners consider hosts friends with shared interests, experiences, communities and histories, and base listening choices on those emotions (Adler Berg, 2021; Florini, 2015; Lindgren, 2021). Those behaviors reflect decades of scholarship on parasocial relationships (PSR) and parasocial interaction (PSI) illustrating mediated emotional bonds between content creators and audiences (Horton & Wohl, 1956; Rubin et al., 1985; Rubin & McHugh, 1987). While most analyses rely on surveys and interviews (Liebers & Schramm, 2019), reviews on Apple Podcasts provide an intriguing opportunity to study PSI and PSR, as well as parasocial breakups (PSBU), among a highly-motivated group of listeners. It also offers important comparisons across a diverse spectrum of podcasts, including mainstream news podcasts, conservative and far-right podcasts as well as true crime, business and sports podcasts.
Journalists and academics routinely debate how journalists should behave on public-facing media, including how social and personable they should be on podcasts and social media (Bossio & Sacco, 2017; Funk, 2017; Marwick & boyd, 2011; Munslow, 2021). Identifying PSI and PSR trends in Apple Podcast reviews provides needed insights for mainstream journalists. For instance — do five-star reviews focus on the personality and relatability of the journalists hosting the programs, given that five-star reviews are written by their most avid fans? Conversely, do one-star reviews criticize their personality, their professionalism or their perceived biases? When and for whom do audiences have notions of neutrality and objectivity?
Conservative news podcasts frequently camouflage their text-based content, such as episode descriptions, to resemble mainstream media (Funk & Speakman, 2022) while simultaneously condemning mainstream journalism as biased enemies of a silent conservative majority (Calhoun, 2019; Hemmer, 2022; Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). Typically, an audience’s perception of a media performer’s authenticity and self-disclosure increases message acceptance (Nah, 2022) which could also apply to far-right podcasts that spread disinformation and conspiracies. Parasocial phenomena also help motivate listening for other genres, like true crime (Perks & Turner, 2019). It could also apply to fringe and far-right podcasts, which share themes of victimhood and persecution with center-right podcasts (Speakman & Funk, 2020). Findings contribute to a better understanding of audience preferences, as little scholarship has been done on podcast reviews or on reviews of journalism products generally.
This mixed methods analysis studies Apple Podcast reviews in two phases. First, an in-depth qualitative analysis of daily news podcasts from mainstream journalists, conservative news organizations and far-right media explore if, when and how expressions of parasocial phenomena manifest in Apple Podcast reviews. Are fans reviewing the show and its content, or the hosts and their personalities? Daily news podcasts are often short and direct; documenting parasocial phenomena in reviews of such podcasts could be telling, and offers potential comparisons between mainstream, conservative and far-right podcasts with similar formats and production schedules. Every review written between September 30, 2021, and October 21, 2022, was downloaded and inductively studied.
Second, computerized content analysis (CATA) explored rhetoric and word choice in roughly 21,000 Apple Podcast reviews of 48 podcasts in six podcast journalism genres: mainstream news, conservative news and far-right news, as well as true crime, sports and business. CATA measured and explored word choice and rhetoric to determine the tone of every review. Were Apple Podcast reviews of mainstream news written with more personal, familiar or inspirational language than reviews in other categories? Quantitative exploration allowed a broader understanding of how parasocial phenomena manifest in Apple Podcast reviews.
Journalists often negotiate their professional and personal online behavior to navigate professional, organizational, and institutional pressures (Bossio & Sacco, 2017; Marwick & boyd, 2011; Munslow, 2021). Because journalism is not a credentialed profession in the United States, internal and external actors influence journalism boundaries and determine what counts as reputable news and credible newsmakers (Lewis, 2012). The audience is a legitimate actor in critiquing and determining journalistic boundaries, legitimacy, and procedures (Kananovich & Perreault, 2021).
Some of the most long-standing ideals that delineate the boundaries of accept- able journalism to both external and internal actors include objectivity, neutrality and transparency; these standards often indicate professionalism and are associated with perceptions of journalistic credibility (Hellmueller et al., 2013) and can lead to higher audience perceptions of credibility (Tandoc & Thomas, 2017). However, audiences also tend to believe that there is a bias against their ideological views by most of the news media (Eveland & Shah, 2003).
Journalism and Podcasting:
One notable dimension of research into journalistic transparency is sociable behavior, authenticity and likeability among journalists (Peifer & Meisinger, 2021). Social media audiences have “a presumption of personal authenticity and connection” (Marwick & boyd, 2010, p. 129), leading many journalists to share “light-hearted content, images of their everyday lives, hobbies and activities” or to avoid neutral and detached language (Bossio & Sacco, 2017, p. 538). So-called “ambient transparency” offers asides, hyperlinks and personal opinions on social media and is separate from news gathering (Karlsson, 2020), but there are also indications Gen Z news consumers value authenticity and personality embedded in news content, particularly short-form videos (Munslow, 2021).
Podcasting offers fertile ground for journalists to share personality, either ambiently or directly concerning their journalism. The medium has a well-documented focus on authenticity and personality (Florini, 2015; Meserko, 2015; Sienkiewicz & Jaramillo, 2019), often leading listeners to base choices on feelings of intimacy and parasocial relationships (Perks & Turner, 2019). Podcasting encourages “chipper and sincere conversation,” including personal discussions of perspectives, narratives and even feelings from hobbyist and professional podcasters (Funk, 2017). Yet, conservative media differ from traditional journalistic brands which often attempt to tamp down individual personalities to focus on brands (Holton & Molyneux, 2017).
In some cases, transparent self-disclosure becomes “metajournalistic performance” emphasizing a reporter’s persona to reaffirm journalistic culture and authority (Perdomo & Rodrigues-Rouleau, 2021); in others, journalists are often “central characters” in their own reporting, “self-reflexively sharing how they think and feel” (Lindgren, 2021, p. 12).
Parasocial Interactions, Relationships and Breakups:
Analyses of personality and transparency in podcasting overlap with analyses of parasocial phenomena, a concept originally described as a “simulacrum of give- and-take” between media audiences and media personalities (Horton & Wohl, 1956, p. 215). Despite knowing a person or character inside a television cannot speak to them, and in the case of fictional characters is not even real, media users often perceive an “intimate reciprocal social interaction” (Dibble et al., 2016, p. 23) between them and the media persona. It is a “type of intimate, friend-like relationship” (Rubin & McHugh, 1987, p. 280) that can be “experienced outside of the viewing time, role adoption, non-mutual and non-dialectic communication” (Ingram & Luckett, 2019, p. 148).
The phrase “parasocial phenomena” is a blanket term covering three distinct but related sensations: parasocial interaction (PSI), parasocial relationships (PSR) and parasocial breakups (PSBU) (Liebers & Schramm, 2019). When specifically defined, PSI is confined to the viewing episode. Some scholars argue it is defined by feelings of mutual awareness and perceived dynamic conversation between audience and persona (Dibble et al., 2016; Hartmann & Goldhoorn, 2011); others consider face-to-face communication one part of a multi-dimensional understanding of PSI (Ingram & Luckett, 2019; Tsay & Bodine, 2012) or argue that a literal sense of reciprocal immersion is not necessarily required (Schramm & Hartmann, 2008).
PSR, conversely, refers to longer-term bonds that are not restricted to in-the-moment emotions and perceptions (Chung & Cho, 2017; Rubin & McHugh, 1987; Tukachinsky, 2011). PSRs offer a stronger parallel to traditional in-person relationships (Rosaen & Dibble, 2017); sustained PSI can evolve into a PSR (Wong et al., 2017). PSI “limits itself to the interaction between a media character and the audience … PSR exceeds this limit and leads to or encompasses cross-situational relationships between the audience and media characters” (Liebers & Schramm, 2019, p 5). PSBU highlights the conclusion, end or even the emotional death of a parasocial relationship (Cohen, 2003; Daniel & Westerman, 2017; Gregg, 2018). Such studies have long histories; at least 261 empirical studies on parasocial phenomena have been published since 1956 (Liebers & Schramm, 2019).
Conservative and Far-Right Media:
Conservative audiences tend to believe that most news media are biased against their ideological views (Eveland & Shah, 2003). In response, conservative media help cultivate social identity among the political right by offering a sympathetic shelter from mainstream media they believe opposes conservative values and individuals (Vultee, 2012). Right-wing media often use anger to spark strong emotional reactions (Hawley, 2017; Hemmer, 2016; Woods & Hahner, 2019) and encourage feelings of victimhood and persecution (Bauer & Nadler, 2020; Be- bout, 2019). They have been instrumental in guiding and influencing Republican supporters and politicians, particularly Rush Limbaugh (Hemmer, 2022) and Fox
News (Cassino, 2016), and partisan media aided a rightward shift and feelings of victimhood and persecution among American conservatives (Nadler, 2022).
Right-wing media and politics function much more cohesively than other parts of the American political system (Meagher, 2012), with conservative media actively supporting partisan beliefs (Waisbord et al., 2018) and encouraging highly partisan falsehoods (Robinson, 2018). Conservative media users frequently encounter mainstream news or oppositional narratives through happenstance on social media, not because they actively sought out that information (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008).
Lines between the center-right and far right have become blurrier in recent years (Speakman & Funk, 2020), as fringe conservatives have become adept at exploiting social media algorithms and manipulating what journalists consider news (Caplan & boyd, 2018). Far-right movements share appeals to emotion as one of their dominant rhetorical devices (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2018). Those emotional appeals are shared much more openly, and woven more directly into conservative content, than the “ambient transparency” (Karlsson, 2020) and “metajournalistic performance” (Perdomo & Rodrigues-Rouleau, 2021) often employed by mainstream journalists.
This mixed methods analysis begins with an inductive, qualitative analysis of Apple Podcast reviews of daily news podcasts from mainstream, conservative, and far-right news organizations. RQ1 explores PSI and PSR in those reviews; RQ2 considers PSBU in the same collection. Quantitative, computerized analysis for RQ3 explores personal and familiar language in Apple Podcast reviews of mainstream news podcasts, conservative and far-right news podcasts, as well as a collection of other nonfiction and journalistic podcast genres of podcast journalism.
RQ1: Are PSI and PSR expressed in Apple Podcast reviews of daily news podcasts from mainstream, conservative and far-right news media? If so, how?
RQ2: Is PSBU expressed in Apple Podcast reviews of daily news podcasts from mainstream, conservative and far-right news media? If so, how?
RQ3: Are there significant differences in the use of parasocial language in Apple Podcast reviews of mainstream news podcasts, conservative and far-right news podcasts and/or other journalism podcast genres? If so, what differences?
This mixed methods analysis sits at an intriguing intersection of scholarship on parasocial phenomena (Horton & Wohl, 1956; Liebers & Schramm, 2019), perceived emotional bonds between podcast hosts and audiences (Lindgren, 2021; Perks & Turner, 2019; Sienkiewicz & Jaramillo, 2019) and center-right and far-right media encouraging feelings of persecution and solidarity among conservatives (Nadler, 2022; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2018).
The majority of parasocial analyses are quantitative surveys of user behavior (Liebers & Schramm, 2019); qualitative analyses of podcast listener motivations found parasocial trends focused on interviews (Boling & Hull, 2018; Perks & Turner, 2019). Those methodologies restrict researchers to willing participants; given right-wing animosity toward both journalists and academics, it seems unlikely those listeners would participate in good faith. Those approaches also risk missing the breadth and diversity of expressions of parasocial phenomena among podcast listeners. Instead, this mixed methods analysis employs an inductive, qualitative approach for RQ1 and RQ2 and a quantitative computerized analysis for RQ3.
Researchers approached data collection in three steps. First, researchers identified podcasts that fit appropriate practical and ideological dimensions for RQ1 and RQ2. To be eligible, podcasts must be available in Apple Podcasts and have at least 500 reviews in Apple Podcasts; all but one had considerably more. Apple Podcasts offers separate categories for “Daily News,” “Politics” and “News Commentary,” but there is considerable overlap between each group. Apple Podcasts also does not tag, sort or categorize podcasts by ideology. The “Politics” catego- ry, for example, includes podcasts from the conservative Daily Wire, mainstream NPR and The New York Times, progressive Crooked Media, and far right (Steve) Bannon’s War Room. Even apolitical genres like true crime are categorized unreliably (Sherrill, 2020). Establishing the ideological lean of a podcast simply by their presentation in Apple Podcasts can be extremely difficult (Funk & Speak- man, 2022), particularly given rhetorical overlap between right-wing and far-right podcasts (Speakman & Funk, 2020).
This study used the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart as a guide (Muller, 2022). Scores for bias and reliability were used to help categorize and balance podcasts in mainstream, conservative and far-right categories; while individual scores could be disputed on the chart, it serves as a valuable tool for broad categorization.
Phase I: Qualitative Analysis for RQ1 and RQ2
Qualitative analysis for RQ1 and RQ2 considers short, daily news podcasts intended to summarize essential news for early morning publication. Given their short lengths and direct approaches to news, parasocial attachments to hosts would have considerably less time to develop per day than longer analytical programs; their presence in Apple Podcast reviews would be particularly intriguing. Daily news podcasts from mainstream journalists are plentiful, but the market on the right is dominated by The Morning Wire podcast, which was created by Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire organization in part to compete with mainstream morning news podcasts. When analysis began in October 2022, The Morning Wire had more than 21,700 reviews on Apple Podcasts; the few other conservative daily news podcasts lagged far behind. The Morning Wire has clear formatting similarities to Up First from National Public Radio and Axios Today from Axios. Axios Today’s bias and reliability scores were similar to The Morning Wire; Up First was rated slightly more liberal and reliable than both, and had more than 49,300 reviews on Apple Podcasts. To compensate, researchers added the Fox News Rundown podcast, which had a similar bias score (on the right) to Up First (on the left) but also had a slightly lower reliability score and far fewer Apple Podcast reviews. Far-right podcasts are generally longer and opinion-driven. The fairest comparisons were the Breitbart News Daily Podcast, which is longer than the others but also focused on daily publication, and Human Events Daily with Jack Posobiec, which claims a focus on breaking news but was created by the far-right activist group Turning Point USA. Most podcasts had one or two regular hosts. (See Appendix 1 for a full list of sampled podcasts.)
Next, researchers located Apple Podcast reviews for each selected podcast. The other most prominent podcast platforms, Spotify and YouTube, do not include reviews. Not every review on Apple Podcasts includes a written review; many, if not most, reviewers simply select between one and five stars and submit a review without commentary. In all but one case, every podcast had a review aver- age above four stars. Researchers began by copying all Apple Podcast reviews with comments from October 21, 2022, (when analysis began) to September 30, 2021, from Apple Podcasts into Microsoft Word documents. Copied reviews included the title and first 30-40 words of the review commentary; to continue reading longer reviews, pressing a MORE button was necessary and logistically prohibitive. In most cases, that included thousands of reviews; in others, fewer reviews were written during the same period, requiring researchers to copy the entire body of Apple Podcast reviews. In every case, there were enough reviews to achieve saturation, or the point in qualitative analysis where no new themes or ideas manifest (Strauss & Corbin, 1997).
Qualitative analysis was conducted with Microsoft Word and NVivo qualitative analysis software. Inductive analysis considered diverse expressions of PSI, PSR and PSBU. For PSI, researchers considered expressions of individual events, episodes or moments in a podcast; they explored if and how reviewers cited individual moments or exchanges, and if/how reviewers expressed reactions and responses to those moments. Expressions of feelings or emotions to particular moments were also included.
For PSR, expressions of sustained familiarity or behavior were included. Review- er expressions about long-term listening, deep knowledge, familiarity or intimacy with the host and/or history also qualified. Expressions of in-group solidarity with podcast hosts were considered to reflect PSR, so long as it was expressed in personal terms. For PSBU, personal expressions of breakup, disillusionment or abandonment were included. Whenever a reviewer claimed a podcast host “lost them” or they “gave up” it was considered PSBU, so long as it was expressed in personal terms.
The research began with an approach based in grounded theory; researchers did not have a fixed methodology in mind when starting the project, instead employing open-ended and inductive analytical strategies (Strauss & Corbin, 1994, 1997). The research began with a qualitative analysis that indicated the frequency and intensity of parasocial phenomena in RQ1 and RQ2 were considerably higher in reviews of far-right podcasts than reviews of mainstream news podcasts (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Researchers hypothesized that computerized content analysis (CATA) could measure such differences on a much broader scale; initial quantitative inquiries snowballed into RQ3 and a mixed methods approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1997).
Phase II: Quantitative Analysis for RQ3
CATA analysis for RQ3 built on qualitative findings from RQ1 and RQ2, as well as subsequent quantitative hypotheses. Qualitative findings indicated the frequency and intensity of parasocial language was higher in Apple Podcast reviews of far- right podcasts than in mainstream news podcasts. Researchers adapted a CATA approach and software used by Funk and McCombs (2017) to measure parasocial language and rhetoric used in Apple Podcast reviews of mainstream news podcasts, conservative and far-right podcasts, as well as three other genres of podcast journalism. That process utilized several steps.
First, researchers selected eight podcasts from three distinct groups: mainstream news podcasts, conservative news podcasts and far-right news podcasts. The selection procedure mirrored the process for RQ1 and RQ2: podcasts needed to appear in the top 200 shows in the “News” category of Apple Podcasts; they needed at least 500 reviews in Apple Podcasts (although the show with the few- est reviews had roughly 1,100 reviews); podcasts needed to represent different organizations and corporate owners; and they needed appropriate categorization in the interactive Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart. Mainstream news podcasts reflected reliability scores between 43.78 and 49.17, and bias scores between -1.4 and -9.44. Conservative news podcasts reflected higher bias and lower reliability scores; far-right podcasts presented much higher bias scores and much lower reliability scores. The vast majority of podcasts had one or two regular hosts. (See Appendix 2 for the full list of podcasts.)
Researchers also collected eight podcasts from three other genres of journalism podcasts: true crime, sports and business. All were at or near the top of their respective Apple Podcast categories, all had far more than 500 reviews, and each represented a different news organization. Including other genres of podcast journalism allowed a fuller, richer analysis; it also presented intriguing comparisons to mainstream news podcasts that could not be reduced to political ideology.
On average, mainstream news podcasts had fewer Apple Podcast reviews than other genres; collecting a full year of reviews could lead to a quantitatively imbalanced analysis. Instead, researchers copied Apple Podcast reviews into Microsoft Word until the document reached 60 pages, or roughly 480 reviews each; in some cases, the full corpus of Apple Podcast reviews fell short, but the majority of podcasts met this requirement. Researchers then used a programmable macro in Microsoft Word to split those 60-page documents into individual one-page documents with roughly eight Apple Podcast reviews each.
Researchers used Diction, a CATA program designed to measure themes and rhetoric in bodies of text by counting individual words associated with particular “word dictionaries,” or collections of terms associated with established rhetorical themes and past scholarship. Diction maintains an ongoing list of published academic studies that utilize the software (Diction Software, 2021).
To measure parasocial phenomena, researchers identified word dictionaries in Diction that reflected PSI, PSR and PSBU. Researchers identified six dictionaries that measured language closely shared by expressions of parasocial phenomena: human interest, self-reference, satisfaction, inspiration, optimism and commonality. Each, in different ways, reflected perceived personal connections and shared experiences and relationships. The following operationalizations are pulled from the Diction software (DICTION: The Text Analysis Program, 2010).
An adaptation of Rudolf Flesch’s notion that concentrating on people and their activities gives discourse a life-like quality. Included are standard personal pronouns (he, his, ourselves, them), family members and relations (cousin, wife, grandchild, uncle), and generic terms (friend, baby, human, persons).
All first-person references, including I, I’d, I’ll, I’m, I’ve, me, mine, my, myself. Self-references are treated as acts of indexing whereby the locus of action appears to reside in the speaker and not in the world at large, thereby implicitly acknowledging the speaker’s limited vision.
Terms associated with positive affective states (cheerful, passionate, happiness), with moments of undiminished joy (thanks, smile, welcome), and pleasurable diversion (excited, fun lucky) or with moments of triumph (celebrating, pride, auspicious). Also included are words of nurturance: healing, encourage, secure, relieved.
Abstract virtues deserving of universal respect. Most of the terms in this dictionary are nouns isolating desirable moral qualities (faith, honesty, self-sacrifice, virtue) as well as attractive personal qualities (courage, dedication, wisdom, mercy). Social and political ideals are also included: patriotism, success, education, justice.
Language endorsing some person, group, concept or event, or highlighting their positive entailments.
Language highlighting the agreed-upon values of a group and rejecting idiosyncratic modes of engagement.
Researchers then imported each Word document into Diction and conducted a computerized content analysis. Diction counted each instance of every word in every dictionary in every document. Findings were then exported to Microsoft Excel and SPSS, where podcasts were grouped based on genre (mainstream news, conservative news, far-right news, true crime, sports and business). In SPSS, ANOVA analysis with a Tukey HSD-post test measured statistical differ- ences for each dictionary across all six categories, all 48 podcasts and all 2,672 data points, representing roughly 21,000 Apple Podcast reviews. This method- ological and statistical approach was adapted from a past study using Diction, ANOVA analysis and Tukey HSD post-tests (Funk & McCombs, 2017).
RQ1: Are PSI and PSR expressed in Apple Podcast reviews of daily news podcasts from mainstream, conservative and far-right news media? If so, how?
Overall, inductive qualitative analysis indicated that almost every review presented a presumption of conversation and direct (mediated) interaction between the reviewer and either the podcast hosts or other reviewers. Apple Podcast reviews strongly emphasized personal pronouns, identities and personal opinions; personal emotions were regularly shared and highlighted. Reviews were also clearly written to and for a captive and interested audience, not an abstract algorithm or computer program. These are clear characteristics of PSI.
Very few reviews focused entirely on professional content; most that did were brief declarations like “great podcast.” Instead, almost every review was ground- ed in personal experience. Reviews like “I listen every morning to start off the day,” “I don’t miss a single episode” or “Been listening to this podcast since they launched” reflect routines and habits developed over time and in conjunction with personal familiarity with the hosts and shows. These are hallmarks of PSR. Typically, reviews emphasized both their personal feelings and individual histories with the podcasts; very few expressed a dispassionate or impersonal opinion about the news or content of the podcast. “Love” was the optimal term for many reviewers.
Personal affection and criticism were also expressed for many hosts, including “I love Ayesha!” and “it does seem like the reporters have become old friends, and I enjoy their daily visit” in reviews of Up First and Axios Today. Criticism was also largely expressed personally, particularly regarding the sound or character of individual voices, including words like “guffawing” or “screechy.”
Reviews of the conservative The Morning Wire were presented personally, with a focus on the reviewer’s ideology and personal pronouns (PSI), as well as long-standing listening habits and affection for the show (PSR): “After a morning devotional, this podcast is the best way to spend 15 minutes in the morning.” Hosts were individually praised less, however. Personal criticism of Chris Wallace on The Fox News Rundown was especially vocal, including a review that he is past his “use by date.”
Personal praise and flattery were much more common in reviews for the far-right Breitbart News Daily and Human Events Daily; those hosts were “amazing” with “clear eyes and a sober mind” and a “one of a kind brilliant” host who “brings receipts, both jokers, the deuce & Ace to the table!!” The intensity of that personal affection was also considerably higher than in mainstream or conservative pod- cast reviews. Reviewers did not simply “love” the shows; the show “gets the truth out” and represents “the current AND future voice for conservatives.” Reviewers also routinely emphasized the “enormously valuable” passions and contributions made by the far-right podcasts, as well as emphasis for the “facts” and “professionalism” presented on the shows.
RQ2: Is PSBU expressed in Apple Podcast reviews of daily news podcasts from mainstream, conservative and far-right news media? If so, how?
Frequently, the ending or conclusion of a parasocial relationship is a painful experience (Daniel & Westerman, 2017; Gregg, 2018) that feels like losing a friend (Cohen, 2003). Evidence of emotional parasocial breakups (PSBU) was found throughout Apple Podcast reviews for daily news podcasts. PSBU generally followed one of three formats: complaints about audio quality or voice tone, criticisms of lengthy focus on a specific news topic, and complaints about perceived liberal or conservative biases. In each case, reviewers typically spoke directly to hosts, presuming direct interaction and personal conversations reflecting PSI; PSBUs seemed to presume that technical or ideological choices were made directly by hosts.
PSBU motivated by audio concerns was less common, but almost always presented in personal terms. Comments included “I love NPR, but why are y’all tryna come through like someone’s sleeping in the next room” and “Jack, your content is great but the volume is all over the place. Please fix this.” Reviews also highlighted or criticized specific names and voices by name. Such commentary could have been written abstractly — “this podcast has poor audio quality,” for example—but reviewers instead cast perceived audio issues as personal problems, not professional obstacles. In some cases, personal criticism was aimed at the sound and tone of speaking voices of particular journalists.
Reviews of specific editorial decisions occasionally reflected repetition or tediousness; some reviewers expressed exhaustion with continued coverage of the war in Ukraine or investigations into riots and the coup attempt on January 6, 2021. Typically, however, objections about particular news events were coupled with accusations of media bias.
Reviews of mainstream podcasts frequently commented on accepting or acknowledging that the podcast (or mainstream news generally) had a left-wing bias, at times condemning how far the show had shifted to the left. Such criticism was typically couched in personal terms identifying the reviewer as a Democrat or independent and often presented as though they accepted those biases begrudgingly; in many other cases, perceived biases were characterized as “too much” or cause to abandon the podcast due to personal ideological incompatibilities. Reviews included “Sad to say I’m giving up on NPR after six years. … it has become clear the programmers have Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS),” “Awful partisan show. Completely anti-white,” and “The host of the podcasts is blatantly biased and non-objective in presenting stories and asking (leading) questions of the interviewees.”
In other cases, mainstream podcasts were deemed compromised by advertisements from oil companies or other large corporations. Most commonly, reviewers accused the podcasts of biases regarding climate change coverage, including “Lost all credibility on climate issues once the Exxon ads started.”
PSBU was also expressed very personally in reviews of conservative podcasts, particularly the Fox News Rundown, and routinely focused on perceived progressive biases. Reviewers frequently accused Fox of becoming too “soft” or progressive, often while emphasizing the personal conservative credentials of the reviewer and longstanding support that was being withdrawn due to perceived progressive biases. Shows were deemed insufficiently conservative often due to reporting and discussion on the January 6, 2021, coup attempt or other instances of being unsupportive of former President Donald Trump.
Other reviewers, particularly for The Morning Wire, acknowledged and defended perceived conservative biases as plainly evident and “fair” given perceived progressive biases in mainstream media. “Definitely a conservative view, but presented in a very balanced and fair way.” Praise and support for conservative values in far-right podcasts was stronger.
Some critical reviews on the right and far right did not reflect parasocial relationships or breakups. While one-star reviews called far-right hosts “crazy” in personal terms, they did not emphasize a personal attachment to the show or shared ideological values; they seemed more likely written by motivated ideological critics who had listened to only one or two episodes, if any at all. Those reviews also seemed to speak more to readers of Apple Podcast reviews, not the hosts themselves; this also reflects a presumed direct interaction and qualifies as PSI, but of a different style and intensity, as PSI expressed elsewhere in Apple Podcast reviews. “This is not news. This is propaganda” and “emotionally ill religious people,” for example, do not reflect PSBU.
RQ3: Are there significant differences in the use of parasocial language in Apple Podcast reviews of mainstream news podcasts, conservative, and far-right news podcasts and/or other journalism podcast genres? If so, what differences?
Quantitative CATA considered parasocial language and rhetoric in mainstream news podcasts, conservative news podcasts and far-right news podcasts, as well as true crime, business and sports podcasts. Researchers identified six-word dictionaries in the Diction computerized content analysis software that reflected parasocial phenomena. Each category had similar average reviews on Apple Podcasts: mainstream news (4.3 stars out of 5), conservative news (4.6), far-right news (4.7), true crime (4.6), sports (4.6), and business (4.7).
CATA indicated significant differences regarding parasocial language and expres- sions between groups. ANOVA analysis indicated that language reflecting human interest (f = 108.270, p < .001), satisfaction (f = 121.350, p < .001), optimism (f = 50.290, p < .001), and commonality (f = 14.847, p < .001) was significantly less common in mainstream news reviews than every other category.
Put another way: language giving discourse “a life-like quality,” “positive affective states” and the “shared values of a group” was significantly less likely to appear in Apple Podcast reviews of mainstream news podcasts when compared to reviews of conservative news podcasts, far-right news podcasts, and three other genres of journalism podcasts. Language reflecting inspiration (f = 78.921, p < .001) and self-reference (f = 119.949, p < .001) was also significantly less com- mon in reviews of mainstream news podcasts when compared to conservative news podcasts and most other genres. Tukey HSD post-tests indicated signifi- cant differences between groups. (See Figure 1.)
Journalists remain unsure how to balance personality, transparency, likeability and objectivity in mainstream news content; past studies and discussions have considered “ambient transparency” (Karlsson, 2020), “internal community” (Funk, 2017) and light-hearted sharing of hobbies and personal interests unrelated to politics or news (Bossio & Sacco, 2017; Marwick & boyd, 2011). Scholarship also indicates parasocial interactions and relationships (Horton & Wohl, 1956; Liebers & Schramm, 2019) help motivate podcast listening choices (Boling & Hull, 2018; Perks & Turner, 2019) and reflecting feelings of shared community and authentic experiences between hosts and audiences (Adler Berg, 2021; Florini, 2015; Lindgren, 2021).
Results here indicate that parasocial phenomena manifest in the Apple Podcast reviews of a variety of journalism podcasts. Qualitative analysis indicates reviews of daily news podcasts rely largely on presumptions of direct interaction and conversation, long histories of listening and shared experiences, routines built around listening and clear personal familiarity with hosts. Reviewers could briefly and objectively review podcast content; instead, almost every Apple Podcast re- view is a personal expression and presumed conversation between the reviewer and either podcast hosts or readers. When listeners abandon a podcast, they typically characterize that decision in personal terms reflecting their own personal values and individual experiences.
These parasocial phenomena were clearly evident in reviews of daily news podcasts — short, direct programs with little time for personal discussion or deep sharing. This suggests PSI, PSR and PSBU are common throughout podcasting and motivate listener choices and habits.
The frequency and intensity of those parasocial feelings, however, was qualitatively much stronger in reviews of far-right podcasts. Such shows are riddled with conspiracy, extremism and bad faith condemnations of mainstream media and society. They are also readily available in the same catchall “News” category in Apple Podcasts, near (or occasionally beside) daily news podcasts from professional mainstream journalists.
Inductive qualitative findings suggested a quantitative, rhetorical comparison between Apple Podcast reviews of mainstream news podcasts, conservative news podcasts and far-right news podcasts, as well as apolitical journalism podcasts on true crime, business and sports. Despite similar high overall ratings on Apple Podcasts, quantitative CATA found that reviews for mainstream journalism podcasts were significantly less likely to use language emphasizing “a life-like quality,” “positive affective states” and the “shared values of a group.” Reviewers of mainstream podcasts praised significantly less frequently, were inspired significantly less frequently and expressed joy, respect and shared values significantly less frequently than reviewers of conservative and conspiracy-driven far right podcasts; such language was also significantly less common in mainstream reviews when compared to podcasts covering other, apolitical journalism topics.
Quantitatively, reviewers of mainstream journalism podcasts simply do not use personal language, or express personal feelings, at the same rate as reviewers of other podcasts seemingly failing to build the same type of relationship. Qualitatively, those reviewers do express those feelings and do build relationships with podcasts, but with less frequency and emotional intensity than reviewers of far-right podcasts. There are at least two ways of interpreting these findings.
On the one hand, journalists and academics could argue that mainstream journalism podcasts should still reflect objectivity and traditional journalistic values of detachment and professionalism. The presence of parasocial phenomena in reviews of short, professional, daily news podcasts could be considered an affirmation of journalistic strategies that recommend sharing only a little personality, and only in the margins, with limited changes to the news product itself. This perspective could also argue that conservative and far-right podcasts are fundamentally different products with more personality-driven business models, more ideologically close-knit communities and different standards and expectations for both hosts and audiences; the same could be said of true crime, sports, business podcasts and journalism. This approach argues the current study is effectively an apples and oranges comparison.
On the other hand, given how frequently journalistic transparency is discussed and how central parasocial phenomena and emotional connections are to pod- casting and digital communities, findings could be interpreted to recommend stronger efforts to build emotional bonds and communities between mainstream news podcasts and listeners in generating connection. This perspective argues traditional journalism norms concerning detachment and impersonal objectivity are less effective (and potentially a liability) in podcast environments. Mainstream journalists not only elicit fewer emotional bonds than conservative and far-right podcast hosts, they engender fewer emotional bonds than other genres of mainstream podcast journalism. If parasocial phenomena are significantly more common in a wide variety of other news and journalism podcasts, are daily news podcasts hamstringing their own ability to build audiences and report the news? Are they failing to cultivate emotional bonds among listeners at equal rates to other types of podcasts, and could that failure limit their reach or effectiveness?
Furthermore, there is clear conflict between conspiracy-driven far-right podcasts and mainstream news. The oranges are effectively attacking the apples, routinely condemning their coverage, undermining their credibility, and attempting to eliminate their audiences. If a listener attempts to choose between mainstream and far-right news content in the “News” category of Apple Podcasts, and they are motivated by parasocial phenomena, then mainstream journalists risk losing that listener to conspiracy-driven content.
The authors of the current study are inclined toward the latter perspective. Para- social phenomena appear to be an essential part of podcast loyalty and listening habits; reviews of mainstream news podcasts overall express that loyalty with less frequency and emotional intensity than reviewers of a spectrum of other non-fiction podcast content, including far-right podcasts that are deeply toxic. Encouraging stronger emotional bonds and parasocial phenomena among mainstream news podcast listeners and reviewers seems a wise strategy for those shows.
Limitations and Opportunities for Future Research
This study presents at least three limitations and opportunities for future research. First, most analyses of parasocial phenomena utilize surveys or interviews (Liebers & Schramm, 2019). While this approach could be challenging for podcast listeners of conservative and far-right podcasts, it could be an illuminating approach for listeners of mainstream news podcasts, as well as podcast listeners of other genres.
Second, scholarship on left and far-left media is relatively rare. Researchers considered including those categories in this study; like previous scholarship, however, researchers worried that a lack of scholarship on modern progressive media could complicate direct comparisons between left wing and mainstream news media (Funk & Speakman, 2022). An inductive analysis of left and far-left podcasting is warranted.
Third, this study was conducted within the contexts of the United States media and politics. These findings may not be applicable in other national contexts with different political, technology and media environments.
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About the authors:
Marcus Funk is an associate professor of mass communication at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He studies podcasting, digital community and conservative media, and has a PhD in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.
LaRissa Lawrie is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She studies emerging media, fake news, and media effects.
Burton Speakman is an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University who studies conservative media, far-right media, and media coverage of conspiracies. He has a PhD in Journalism from the University of Ohio.