In each episode of MrBallen, series host John Allen appears in the center of the frame, usually wearing a plaid shirt with a couple of buttons undone and a baseball cap turned backward, and slowly talks viewers through the events of a “strange, dark, and mysterious” true crime story. Episodes with titles like “What I saw in my room still haunts me” and “Real-life ‘ghost ship’ has a SECRET,” bring in more than 40 million monthly views — a massive volume that still is not enough to put Allen in the upper echelon of YouTube influencers. But in podcasting? He’s a star.
Steven Cohen, a longtime audio industry sales executive, was shocked when he dug into the stats for the podcast version of MrBallen, which launched in February. The show was “putting up numbers that, honestly, having come from a reasonably big network, I had never seen,” he told The Verge. The opportunity was big enough that Cohen decided to leave his role as vice president of Audacy-owned podcast network Cadence13 to join the independent true crime show.
Cohen, who joined the company as head of sales in May, said that July is on track to do the same. And yes, 7 million is less than 40 million. But 7 million monthly downloads get you a spot at the top of Spotify and Apple’s podcast charts and plum CPM rates with advertisers with which YouTube cannot compete.
The show has a few things in its favor: the insatiable demand for true crime content; a preexisting fan base; and Allen’s radio voice. But MrBallen’s success is also indicative of the merge that is happening between YouTube and podcasting. YouTube is the No. 1 platform for podcasts (yes, above Spotify and Apple), according to a study by Cumulus, and with videos of podcast recordings now par for the course, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish what exactly is the difference between a podcast and a YouTube video.
Allen recognized the resemblance early on after launching the YouTube show in March 2020. “It’s a video podcast on YouTube. We don’t call it that, but that’s what it is,” he said. “I really had no idea how to scale a YouTube channel into anything else. I wanted to do a podcast but I just didn’t have the bandwidth.”
He brought on a business manager, Nick Witters, created a sustained YouTube audience, and expanded his staff. He finally got his podcast off the ground two years later, and it didn’t take long to garner millions of listens. It also gave the brand more visibility, even if the raw numbers in podcasting are less than what they see on YouTube.
But just because the bar is lower in podcasting does not mean it is any easier to break out. Podcast has a discovery problem, and the charts are still dominated by long-standing shows like The Joe Rogan Experience and My Favorite Murder. Newer hits tend to come from celebrities, like SmartLess with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett and The Always Sunny Podcast with Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney.
However, it’s not enough to be an audio star anymore. Apple Podcasts has hosted videos since 2005, with TED Talks Daily and Club Random with Bill Maher taking advantage of the functionality. Spotify has some of its biggest stars like Rogan and Call Her Daddy’s Alex Cooper post video podcasts, and the company recently announced it was expanding the video podcast feature to six additional countries, including France, Mexico, and Brazil. Audiences like having the video option, and Spotify and Apple have an interest in warding off YouTube. Plus, video clips are more shareable than audio clips — think Call Her Daddy’s viral “Unka Jahms” moment.
MrBallen, despite originating on YouTube, has not yet fused its video and audio operations. The podcast is still audio-only, and there are some differences between the episodes. The YouTube videos tend to be shorter and spookier, while the podcast episodes are more in-depth and cover true crime stories.
That divide will soon end. Cohen said that “we’d like to find a way to have all of those things meet in the middle.” On August 8th, MrBallen is launching a new YouTube channel specifically to feature videos of the podcast recordings.
And while other hit shows have spawned networks, like Pod Save America with Crooked Media and My Favorite Murder with Exactly Right, Allen and Cohen want to focus on the core product for now. “Before we expand, and possibly dilute what it is we’ve got, we want to be very, very careful,” said Cohen. “We are rocking this very gently to bed every night, making sure it sleeps well, wakes up renewed and refreshed the next day.”