Alex Cooper battled Barstool Sports for the rights to her raunchy ‘Call Her Daddy’ podcast and won. The victory led to a $60 million Spotify deal and puts her in control of the hit show’s future
Alex Cooper is on the Fortune 40 Under 40 list in the Culture and Society category. See the full 2022 list.
It’s Friday night in New York City’s Meatpacking District, and Spotify’s most popular female podcaster is cold and looking for a place to drink. Alexandra Cooper started her podcast, Call Her Daddy, not far from here. She and then-cohost Sofia Franklyn taped the show from their Lower East Side apartment, chronicling their sexcapades through the city. “Sofia and I walk to the subway every day because we’re peasants and we don’t have fucking sugar daddies,” Cooper said in an early episode. Now a limo driver is trailing her around the city, proof of just how much the 28-year-old’s life and career have changed since she launched the podcast in 2018.
Since then, Cooper has transformed her podcaster profile from “sex girl” (her words) to a “role model” (fans’ words). She moved to L.A. She’s gone solo; Franklyn left the show in May 2020. Instead of rehashing her drunken antics, Cooper’s weekly episodes now feature self-care advice and interviews with stars like Miley Cyrus, Hailey Bieber, and Julia Fox. Sex still peppers her podcast—in November she recounted her effort to get a semen stain out of a suede headboard—but she also tackles topics within the safer-for-work zeitgeist. An October episode followed Cooper as she visited a North Carolina abortion clinic. At one point she asks a male pro-life protester if the government should mandate vasectomies for men. “We’re regulating the uteruses; we could also regulate the penises, right?” Cooper asks.
Listeners were riveted early on, and they remain hooked. The show’s popularity earned Cooper an exclusive three-year licensing deal with Spotify in 2021 worth $60 million, a sum that landed Cooper in the same realm as podcast king Joe Rogan, whose three-and-a-half-year Spotify exclusive deal is reportedly worth $200 million. Cooper outearns actual royals Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, who reportedly got between $15 million and $18 million for their three-year Spotify exclusive deals in 2022.
“The Daddy Gang is a bunch of predominantly women that are excited to engage in a roller coaster where we don’t know what happens next, but we’re on the ride with Alex,” Cooper tells me, referring to her fan base. “Let’s talk about mental health. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about dating. Let’s talk about our issues. Let’s talk about our successes.”
Since Cooper joined Spotify exclusively, the streamer says, it’s gotten its money’s worth. Call Her Daddy was Spotify’s second-most popular podcast globally in 2021 behind The Joe Rogan Experience, and it was the No. 1 podcast among female listeners.
“She’s the equivalent of an Oprah or an Ellen because she’s able to touch people in a certain way,” says Spotify chief content officer Dawn Ostroff. “There’s a certain ownership of their femininity in a different way, where women feel entitled to be who they are, to be unapologetic about their sexual lives, to be unapologetic about their ambition and talk about things that are important to them—Alex is truly a leader of that movement.”
Cooper, known as Father among fans, has remade her show—and rewritten some of the creator economy’s rules. Yes, she established a new ceiling for top-earning female podcasters, but she also battled for the licensing rights to her content. Call Her Daddy intellectual property—the podcast and related merchandise—belongs to Cooper alone, according to Cooper.
“With the amount that I put into Call Her Daddy there was no doubt about it that I was going to fight quite literally till the end for that IP,” says Cooper. “I understood what it would do to my career if I lost that.”
She also understood what could happen if she owned it. With the IP rights and a fiercely loyal audience, Cooper, who’s on the latest Fortune 40 Under 40 list, belongs to an elite club of top creators who are not limited by the platforms that distribute their content. She’s already switched her allegiance once, and despite the mammoth Spotify deal, she’s not ruling out doing it again.
Mass listener appeal
As Cooper and I roam Manhattan’s West Side, she is stopped by three adoring fans within 10 minutes.
“I’m, like, freaking out,” says Ella Sunshine, 21. The New York University undergrad tells Cooper the podcast helped her transition from childhood to living and dating in New York City—as Cooper once did.
“Oh, my God! I love you!” Cooper coos, squeezing Sunshine for a selfie.
Many creators will tell you they didn’t intend to become celebrities. Cooper did.
She grew up in Newtown, Pa., a town of 2,000, and attended a $46,000-per-year prep school. The bleach-blonde soccer star started on Boston University’s varsity team and was a midfielder from 2013 to 2015. But she wanted stardom on the internet, and majored in film and television—honing video and audio editing skills she’d taught herself as a teen.
After graduation, her boyfriend at the time, then–Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, helped her score a sales job at a magazine. Cooper hated it and cried “tears of joy” when she got laid off.
“I got a job through my famous boyfriend, and I was living with him. I didn’t have anything of my own. I was completely losing myself,” she says.
To find herself—and grow her fame—Cooper started Call Her Daddy with Franklyn. The two wanted to re-create the locker room talk Cooper had exchanged with her college teammates. In early episodes, Franklyn and Cooper encourage a man to stalk a love interest, suggest ugly people work harder during sex to appease partners, and glorify abuse as affection. At best their advice was questionable; at worst it was “toxic”—as a fan on Gansevoort Street put it.
“It was two white women talking about sex and sexuality who have analysis as deep as a puddle,” says Raquel Savage, therapist, sex worker, and founder of mental health nonprofit Zepp Wellness, who argues that Cooper’s fame is largely possible because she’s an attractive white woman. “The conversations they engaged in did not shift feminism in any capacity, at least not in a productive direction.”
Cooper cringes at some of the content but has no regrets. “There was no woman out there being so raw, honest, and calling it what it was,” Cooper says. “The whole time my goal was for people’s jaws to just drop, and it took off.”
Just one episode in, the podcast’s raunchy sex appeal caught the attention of Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports, the sports media empire known for a macho tone that veers into misogyny. (Insider published two stories in 2021 that accused Portnoy of sexual misconduct. He denied the claims and sued Insider for defamation. A judge dismissed the case earlier this year.) In 2018, Portnoy bought the rights to Call Her Daddy, initially paying Cooper and Franklyn each $75,000 a year, plus bonuses based on downloads and merchandise and branded alcohol sales. The show was so popular that Cooper and Franklyn each earned around $500,000 the first year, according to Barstool. Portnoy and Barstool CEO Erika Nardini did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The duo’s relationship with Barstool soured as they sought more money and the show’s IP rights. The hosts stopped recording for over a month as talks stalled.
Portnoy blinked first. In May 2020 he offered the two ownership of the IP, $500,000 starting wages, and an increased cut of merchandise sales in exchange for staying at Barstool. As Cooper recounts, she was in, but Franklyn balked. The duo parted ways—as cohosts, as roommates, as friends. “The moment Dave Portnoy was like, ‘I will give you your IP,’ I was like, ‘Great, I will do anything,’ ” Cooper says.
Franklyn tells a different story. “[Alex] decided that instead of trying to figure this out, ‘I’m just going to take this for myself and run with it.’ That’s what she did,” Franklyn said on a July 2022 episode of the podcast Barely Famous. She declined to comment.
Cooper stayed with Barstool for another year and proved to be an even bigger draw on her own, with Call Her Daddy becoming the most-popular female-created podcast on Spotify and climbing into the streamer’s top five globally. In 2021, Spotify itself came calling, offering Cooper a $60 million, three-year deal to license Call Her Daddy exclusively. (Cooper says Amazon offered her more, but she chose Spotify for its promise of creative freedom. Amazon didn’t return a request for comment.)
“I knew Spotify was going to treat me the same as Barstool—if not better—because the way they talked about their relationships with creators was exactly what I wanted, which is: ‘Do what you want. We’re here to help,’ ” says Cooper.
What Cooper wanted was to shift her podcast away from explicit sexual content and toward topics like mental health. She started to pivot after signing with Spotify. “I got pigeonholed completely to being the girl that gives a good blow job and has great sex advice,” says Cooper. “No doubt about it—that’s why I was so successful, but it also hurt my image.”
Cooper’s embrace of themes like mental health and long-term relationships hasn’t hurt Call Her Daddy’s listenership. In 2021, it ranked No. 2 on Spotify. According to Nielsen, it garners over 5 million listeners per episode on average. The demographic of Cooper’s listener base has changed. It was split 40-60 between men and women early on, but it’s now 90% female, according to reports. The loss of male listeners didn’t surprise Cooper: “The content got a little too heavy for the men.”
Music to Spotify’s ears
Cooper decides we should drink at club-restaurant Catch, where she once threw back several cucumber, matcha, and tequila Detox Retoxes on a first date. We order a round. “Be careful, you get fucked up,” she warns. As Cooper sips her drink, a group of twentysomething white women approaches us: “Alex Cooper! I’m going fucking nuts right now! I love you!”
These fans are one reason Spotify shelled out for Call Her Daddy.
The podcast’s mostly female audience primarily consists of 18- to 29-year-olds, Cooper says. Listeners can only hear Call Her Daddy on Spotify, meaning the show draws the coveted demographic to the platform.
“Those top-end exclusives are most important,” says Mark Zgutowicz, senior analyst at Benchmark, who lists Call Her Daddy and The Joe Rogan Experience as examples. “If these podcasts get you into Spotify, and then you get wowed by the curation and how strong their playlists are—particularly relative to Apple Music—you’re unlikely to ever leave.”
Today, over 4.7 million podcasts live on Spotify alone; according to Nielsen, an estimated 66 million American adults tune in to podcasts on a monthly basis, up 38% in the past two years. Spotify charges brands five times more to advertise via exclusives like Call Her Daddy since audiences of such content are sales gold mines—enormously loyal, with well-defined interests, Zgutowicz says.
Spotify stock cratered to a record low in November, and it laid off staff at in-house podcast production houses Gimlet and Parcast. The turmoil, however, is unlikely to hurt high-profile hosts like Cooper; in fact, she and her peers may benefit as the streamer concentrates resources on buzzy exclusives, says Ariel Shapiro, lead reporter at Hot Pod, an industry publication. Shows like Call Her Daddy that draw large and loyal listenerships are helping Spotify wean itself off the music business, where it spends enormous sums to license content from record labels.
Father knows best
In public, Cooper is affable and gracious with fans. Back in her Dad Pad, her name for the airy West Hollywood home where she books, records, and edits her podcasts, her competitive nature pokes through in the stories she shares. In baggy, mismatched sweats and no makeup, Cooper recalls one of her show’s most viral moments, when actress Julia Fox called herself “Josh Safdie’s muse in Uncut Gems,” pronouncing the film title with a Valley girl lilt. The audio clip has been used in over 51,000 TikToks, accumulating millions of views and likes. In edits, one of Cooper’s team members suggested she cut the line. She cites her decision to keep it as a reason she’s so hands-on.
“I know Call Her Daddy better than anyone,” she says, answering “fuck no” to the question of whether she’ll ever have another cohost.
Her sole control of the podcast means she can decide its future. She’s in talks with Spotify to pioneer tools for listeners to interact with her content within the platform. That said, she’s not ruling out building her own podcast platform or taking Call Her Daddy elsewhere when her Spotify deal expires in 2024.
Owning the podcast IP gives her more options than other creators have. She’s already won the war that some artists have lost but most never fight. Taylor Swift famously rerecorded three studio albums after failing to retrieve her catalog from her former label Big Machine Records and music mogul Scooter Braun.
Cooper “understands the value of what she’s putting out into the world,” says Philippa Loengard, executive director of Columbia Law School’s Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts. “I think that’s a wonderful example for young artists.”
Cooper’s medium and deeply personal approach position her for longevity. Listeners engage in more active listening with podcasts than with music, deepening their connection to the content, says Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.
For now, Cooper is focused on making her podcast No. 1 in the world. “I’m never going to put something over Call Her Daddy. I’m never going to just do something for a paycheck,” she says. “If I don’t get another deal at the end of this deal, I’m going to keep creating. I’m here for the long game.”
This article appears in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, “The Conversation: Alexandra Cooper.”
Correction, Nov. 29, 2022: A previous version misstated the job Cooper held after graduating college. A previous version also misstated the year her Spotify deal expires, an error that was reflected in an earlier headline.