Spoken Word Audio Report

Thanks to the deep connections and emotional involvement it engenders, people are spending more time listening to spoken word audio – at the expense of music listening. In the past month, 73% of the U.S. population listened to spoken word audio. And the share of time spent listening to spoken word has increased 20% since 2014, while time spent with music across the same period decreased 5%.

New research commissioned by NPR and conducted by Edison Research shows this shift is led by a dramatic increase in spoken word audio consumption on mobile devices across age groups, and increases in spoken word share among those ages 13-34.

The findings are from The Spoken Word Audio Report presented Tuesday (Nov. 12) in a webinar hosted by Edison Research VP Megan Lazovick and NPR Chief Marketing Officer Meg Goldthwaite. The report looks at listener behaviors and preferences related to spoken word audio in all of its manifestations, from news, sports and talk radio to podcasts and audiobooks.

In 2019, Americans average four hours per day listening to audio, including one hour per day with spoken word audio. In contrast to the lean-back nature of music listening, spoken word audio is decidedly a lean forward experience. “Listening to spoken word audio is usually a vastly more intensive experience. People lean in, they truly listen and 24% of all time spent with audio going to spoken word is significant,” Lazovick said, especially when you consider that five years ago it accounted for only 20% while music captured 80%.

The growth has been greatest among young people: 13-34 year-olds now spend 19% of their audio time with spoken word audio, up 58% from 2014. Mobile technology use is driving an expansion in the spoken word audio category, the data shows: more than one fifth (22%) of listening to spoken word audio in 2019 occurred on a mobile device, compared to 9% five years ago.

In another striking finding, 43% of the U.S. population listens to spoken word audio daily or 121 million Americans, an increase of 16 million people in the last five years. And those who listen to spoken word audio daily spend an average two hours per day with it. Showing how devoted they are to this type of content, daily spoken word audio listeners spend 42% of their audio time with spoken word and just 58% with music, compared to the 24%-76% music-spoken word split among the total U.S. population.

And yet, despite the expanding array of devices to access spoken word content, AM/FM radio still dominates, representing 61% of spoken word audio, followed by “other” at 22% and podcasts at 17%. The mix has changed considerably since 2014 when AM/FM captured 79%, “other” took 13% and podcasts only 8%. And in just five years, podcast daily listenership has more than doubled.

In another eye-opening stat from the study, more than one quarter of spoken word audio listening is with public media.

The study shows the top reasons for listening to spoken word audio vary based on the platform being used. For spoken word radio listeners, staying up to date with the latest topics and being entertained are the top reasons for tuning in. Among podcast listeners, the top motivations are to be entertained and to learn new things. And consumers primarily dial into audio books to be entertained and to relax.

Understanding the “jobs” that listeners hire specific audio content to do can make programs and podcasts “a need, rather than a want,” Meg Goldthwaite, Chief Marketing Officer at NPR, said during the webinar. “This is important because we can’t just expect audiences to passively consume our content anymore. In an on-demand world we need people to demand NPR.”

Offering more evidence of the role mobile technology is playing in growth of the genre, 59% of spoken word audio listeners are digital-first, meaning they listen most through computers, mobile devices, and smart speakers. Forty-one percent are analog-first, meaning they listen most through AM/FM radio receivers. While the two groups are similar in their gender composition, leaning slightly male, digital-first listeners are considerably younger with 43% aged 18-34 and 34% aged 35-54. Conversely, analog-first spoken word listeners are light on younger demos with more than half (53%) aged 55+. Digital-first listeners are slightly more diverse than their analog-first counterparts.

Another major difference between the two camps is the majority of digital-first listeners (54%) pick specific segments they want to listen to, while 32% listen to pre-set programming. Given the nature of AM/FM programming, nearly two thirds (63%) of analog-first spoken word listeners tune to pre-set programming. In light of all the ways there are to listen to audio, one might think that digital-first listeners only listen via digital devices. However 44% indicated they listen to traditional AM/FM radio. And a significant percentage of analog-first listeners are tuning in to spoken word content via digital platforms.

Digital-first spoken word listeners have longer commutes, about 49 minutes on average, compared to 33 minutes for their analog-first counterparts, suggesting that people with longer commutes are more likely to adopt digital platforms.

“Spoken word audio yields deep connections and involvement from its consumers, with large percentages of consumers reporting they turn to spoken word audio content for information, inspiration, entertainment, and companionship,” Edison says in a press release summarizing key findings.

The study relied on three data inputs. Using a nationally representative sample, Edison conducted 3,013 online interviews with persons age 18+ who consume spoken word audio at least monthly. This was augmented by in-person interviews. The study also used five years of previously unreleased data from Edison’s ongoing Share of Ear research, which includes 4,000 respondents age 13+ who completed an online or offline survey offered in English and Spanish.